Micky’s bouts in the boxing ring are a cakewalk compared to his family life. Start with his motormouthed half-brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), a once-promising boxer whose career peaked when he knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard – an accomplishment that he is quick to recount to anyone who will listen. Micky grew up idolizing his big brother, and remains loyal to Dicky even though he’s a crackhead. With Dicky as his trainer, and his mother Alice (Melissa Leo) as his manager, Micky’s chances of success are slim. To call Micky’s family dysfunctional – in addition to Dicky and Alice there are his seven furious, fractious sisters – is an understatement.
Micky’s a fairly quiet, passive guy. It’s easy to imagine him spending his whole life never getting a word in edgewise and getting shouted down every time he tried. He’s not so different as a boxer: He lies on the ropes and takes a beating, wearing down his opponent and waiting for a chance to strike. The question for Micky – the central question of The Fighter – is whether Micky will ever find it in himself to get off the ropes and fight his family.
There are good reasons to think that he should: Family matriarch Alice clearly favors Dicky. Dicky, for his part, is more interested in his own comeback than in guiding his little brother. Micky’s a surrogate, fighting not so much for himself but to give his grandstanding brother a second chance at glory, and it’s not at all clear that anyone has his best interests at heart. Enter Charlene (Amy Adams), Micky’s girlfriend, a scrappy, tough-talking barmaid who stands up to Alice and her seven daughters when Micky can’t. She can also throw a mean punch when she has to.
The Fighter is less about boxing than it is a love story, a family drama and a complicated tale of fraternal love and sibling rivalry. It’s crazy, funny, sad, profane and sometimes profound, and a nimble, lively, psychologically complex story. There are really a multitude of fighters in The Fighter, and the obvious one, Micky Ward, is the least pugilistic of the bunch.
Bale’s performance – he seems to reinvent himself for every role – is quite extraordinary. He’s gaunt, wild-eyed and energetically frantic, revealing not only the ravages of Dicky’s drug addiction but also the athlete that he once was. Dicky runs, punches, spars and never stops talking, as if willing his body to do things that it really shouldn’t be able to do. He’s a clown, a raconteur, a fighter, a Mama’s boy, a mentor, a charmer and smarter than he looks; he never stops thinking about strategy, even though most of his personal decisions, impaired as they are by drugs and drug-seeking, are quite bad.
Leo’s Alice is in the dubious company of other mythically terrible movie mothers: She chain-smokes, she badgers, she storms, she hurls kitchenware, she denies and defames, she roars. She undermines Micky’s career even while she exploits it for money and attention. Micky, it is clear, can never be better than his big brother in Alice’s eyes; and whether she does it intentionally or not, she sees to it that he never quite succeeds. Only Charlene dares to face down the harridan and her vulgar, vicious daughters who, among them, use enough hairspray to keep the ozone hole open for business. (That the family cooperated with the filmmakers is interesting, to say the least.)
Wahlberg’s performance is quiet, like Micky. He seems to be waiting for something, and watching from the outside as Charlene and the Ward and Eklund families duke it out. What they’re fighting over is, of course, Micky’s destiny. Micky’s personality, and Wahlberg’s performance, parallel the progress of the story, which is, in the end, about a quiet, passive, non-aggressive man who finds the fighter in himself and finally discovers something worth fighting for.
Filmed in Lowell, The Fighter is appropriately gritty and grimy, with the hardscrabble working-class town looking as desperate and ground-down as its fabled son Dicky. Director David O. Russell nicely captures the shabby weariness of this former industrial town and the poverty that blighted it in the 1990s, when this story takes place. Russell (Three Kings, Flirting with Disaster) doesn’t make anything pretty in The Fighter – not the town, nor the people. The fights are brutal, and that goes double for any fight involving Alice and her flock of harpies.
Russell’s directing style is energetic and fleet-footed, and the movie is lively, thoughtful, hilarious and moving, and frequently veers in unexpected directions. Russell aims to reimagine the boxing movie with The Fighter, both to conform to boxing movie conventions and to upend them. In doing so, he both satisfies the expectations of the genre and moves beyond them to create a movie that’s richly complex, moving and genuine.
Syd’s pick: Take a look at Three Kings from David O. Russell’s back catalogue
Set in the immediate aftermath of the first Gulf War, Three Kings is breakneck satire with a surprising amount of suspense – a smart, funny, jaded idealist of a movie with a cool, unconventional look. Archie Gates (George Clooney) is a Special Forces officer on the verge of retirement. He and three reservists are in possession of a map that shows the location of millions in Kuwaiti gold bullion stolen and stashed by Saddam Hussein. Gates and his guys (Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube and Spike Jonze) set out to “liberate” the gold.
In one of many twists in writer/director David O. Russell’s coolly quirky Three Kings, good intentions inconveniently get in the way of good old-fashioned greed. Gates and company find the gold, but they also find a few dozen Iraqi refugees: former rebels and their families left to twist in the wind after the US “wins” the war. No good deed goes unpunished in Three Kings.
In contrast to the scripted precision of Desert Storm (collateral damage and friendly fire notwithstanding), Three Kings builds on seat-of-your-pants energy and narrative imprecision as the unforeseen consequences of the soldiers’ initial unselfish act are amplified by subsequent events that continuously add complications to their simple plan to steal a pile of gold.
@ Syd M