The Fighter is based around the true story of boxer brothers Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund, and Micky Ward’s rise to take the Light Welterweight world title. Dicky Eklund came to fame over a fight that he had with Sugar Ray Leonard, in which he stood toe to toe with Leonard and claims that he actually knocked him down (and by the tape of the fight, that’s indeed how it looks). Dicky’s been known as “The Pride of Lowell” (Lowell, Massachusetts) since then though his career never quite recovered and he’s fallen into a life of crime and crack addiction. Micky worships his brother and wants to follow in his footsteps. He manages to get some stepping stone fights that show his talent, but also have him outclassed with little chance to win. Most of this is due to his mother, Alice, who also acts as his manager. After one fight which comes close to just destroying him and his career, Micky is ready to pack it all in, but thanks to some inspiration from his new girlfriend Charlene, Micky gets the drive to go again. There’s just one catch: He has to get there by not working with either his mother or brother.
The Fighter is the newest movie from director David O. Russell (Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees) and it’s a winner. There’s a lot here that’s conventional to this type of sports movie, but it’s driving center, the idea of Micky having to turn his back and a family that cares for him deeply but leads him down a wrong path is very fresh. Micky’s still devoted to his family though and wants to bring them back into his circle, but under his conditions and not theirs.
Russell tells their story well, following both brothers as they find their way to their own forms of redemption. One of my favorite ways in which he does this is when any of the boxing sequences come on. They’re filmed in a way that looks just like they were being filmed for television broadcast and Russell dodges all of the cliches, especially not falling prey to using swelling music to emphasize a scene. but technique is a minor part of the film, the real focus is on character and performances.
Mark Wahlberg has been trying to get this made for years and has kept himself in terrific shape over time, just in case he ever got the chance to finally tell this story which has obviously struck an emotional chord for him. Wahlberg plays Micky Ward, and compared to his mother and brother, Micky’s on the quiet side. He’s certainly determined and his passion for the sport, for succeeding at the sport, and for being true to his family all come through- even when he has to turn his back on his family. I’ve been a fan of his ever since Boogie Nights, and his development since then has been steady and sure. He’s extremely good here, and his work in the ring is as authentic as it can get.
He’s overshadowed though by terrific performances from Christian Bale as Dicky and Melissa Leo as Alice, but it’s no failing on Wahlberg’s part. These are the real characters they play, and in a nice move from Russell, when the end credits roll, we get a little clip of the real Micky and Dicky. This little clip shows us just how much Wahlberg and Bale nailed their parts and it’s a real nice capper to the film. I’ve been a big fan of Christian Bale since the beginning and here he delivers another winning performance that just adds to the sheer diversity of parts that he’s played. He desperately wants the limelight back in his life and carries a bravura and charisma that at least puts him back in the center of things in his own little world. While he might first seem somewhat cartoonish in comparison to Micky, as Dicky’s story develops you do see that there’s much, much more to the man and thanks to Christian Bale, you do give a damn by the films end. The chemistry between him and Wahlberg is outstanding and with one scene in the film’s final fight you get a connection between the brothers that will just bring a lump to the throat.
Melissa Leo was almost unrecognizable to me when I first saw her in the film. She’s always had an earthier appearance in everything else that I’ve seen her in, and he she changes her look significantly. Her Alice is bossy and dominating, and again like Bale, is almost cartoonish on first appearance. But again, as the story develops, we see much, much more to this woman and Leo shines in the part.
Amy Adams plays Charlene, and it’s a tough part. There’s nothing glamorous about her by any means. Even though she helps Micky get on the right path, she’s just as much a loser in her own right, but knows how to stand up for herself. It’s a pretty raw and real bit of work from her, and she excels. Veteran character actor Jack McGee plays Micky’s father George Ward, and though he doesn’t get the showiness that every one else has, there’s a big heart there and it comes through in every scene he’s in.
The Fighter is a terrific footnote sports history movie (and when I use the term “footnote” it’s not meant in any sort of derogatory way at all, it’s just that this story isn’t something that’s anywhere near as well known as other sports stories told in the past). There’s a big heart in this film that comes to huge life thanks to Mark Wahlberg’s efforts to get this on-screen, his performance, Russell’s first rate direction and a supporting cast that’s about as good as it gets. I’m a little late getting to see this one as it’s already been in theatres for the past two weeks, but I’m certainly glad I did see it. Don’t miss this if you get the chance.