The Fighter | David O. Russell, 2010
Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: a down-on-his-luck fighter must rise from his crappy life and not listen to the naysayers to become an underdog favorite and win the world championship. You have, haven’t you? Haven’t we all heard it? For sure, many times before. On the Waterfront, Rocky, Raging Bull, Cinderella Man, Rocky Balboa, all have the same story. Some of these are classics, but that does not mean that the story has not become stale. But every once in a while, a story that should be in moratorium becomes fresh again when a different focus is introduced, and a talented director gets involved. Many didn’t think David O. Russell’s The Fighter was going to be that movie. After being in production for so long, undergoing various script changes, being abandoned by Darren Aronofsky, Brad Pitt, and Edward Norton, and since it was a rather different kind of movie for O. Russell, things weren’t looking up. But in the end, after a quiet production, the world got to see it. And although it has its flaws, it is a breath of fresh air for the sub-genre.
The Fighter tells the story of real-life boxer “Irish” Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg), from his beginnings as a fighter being used as a “stepping stone” for other fighters to his first championship fight against Shea Neary. But that is not really what this movie is about, at least for the first hour. During that time, it focuses on Ward and his relationship with his family and all those that are helping him with his career. His brother and trainer, Dickey Eklund (Christian Bale), is famous in their hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts because he knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard once. Since then, he has become a crack addict, and HBO is making a documentary about him and his drug problems. His mother and manager (Melissa Leo) is overbearing, loud, obnoxious, and wants to control everything about his life. His other trainer Mickey O’Keefe (played by the real life Mickey O’Keefe) hates Dickey because he is always in trouble with the law and never shows up for training. Oh, and he has seven sisters that share the same qualities as the mom.
But things change when Charlene (Amy Adams) walks into Mickey’s life. She is a tough and loud bar tender that falls for him. Once she sees what his situation with his family is like, she pushes him to get away from them. But he doesn’t really want to do that. He loves his them too much to leave them behind. And so, from then on, he will struggle with the decision of moving on from his life in Lowell and looking out for his career and his future with Charlene. And it all leads to the final forty minutes, which is your usual underdog story.
The one problem that the movie has, and the only thing that keeps it from being in my top 10 of the year is the script. The first half of the movie is a compelling character study of a man who must decide what is best for him: his family that may be killing his future, or a great career and spending his life with the woman he loves. That part is filled with fantastically written characters, and great dialogue. But then it turns into just another boxing movie. This part could have killed the whole thing, but the greatness of the real story and what David O. Russell brought to it, it was saved.
O. Russell brought his usual stylishness to the movie, and it works perfectly. He makes the movie feel energetic and it got me pretty involved with what was happening on the screen. I loved how he didn’t turn it into an inspirational story. There is no “Eye of the Tiger” moment, not bombastic music playing after every victory, nothing that would make the movie go into cheesy territory. Also, the way he worked with his actors and shot their scenes made for even more interesting character development. His choice of Hoyte Van Hoytema (of Let the Right One In fame) was interesting, as his images never got in the way and it only helped me get more into the movie. Now, I did not like too much how the both of them shot the fight scenes, the video look was actually kind of distracting, in the same way that the HBO PPV look of the final scene in Rocky Balboa irked many. It didn’t bother me in that movie, but here, were it not for the story, it would have killed me.
And the cast, oh my god, the cast. O. Russell did a fantastic job of getting the best out of his them. Whalberg gives his best performance, and it is one of the most underrated of the year. It might seem like he is just playing Mark Wahlberg again, but this is a very internal, very physical performance, and he knocked it out of the park. Melissa Leo is so fantastic as the very over-the-top mother. If you think she is just chewing scenery, word has it that she actually toned it down from her true-life counter part. Can you imagine meeting her? Amy Adams shows that she’s no one trick pony and she can play a tough character just as well as a Disney princess. She is my favorite of the two female leads. Mickey O’Keefe is great as well. Maybe when he got on the set his brain made him see as if he was once again doing what he did all those years ago. And finally Christian Bale. Everyone is great and all, but he acts circles around them. First off, he lost nearly as much weight as when he made The Machinist. Also, he got the charisma of the real Dickey down to a tee, as well as the body language of a person who has been addicted to crack for a long time. It’s a great performance, he steals every scene he is in, and hopefully he’ll win an Oscar for this.
Thanks to the work of David O. Russell, the performances (particularly Bale’s), and the awesomeness of the story, The Fighter is able to overcome a movie-destroying second half to become one of the most thoughtful and exciting movies of the year. It’s unlikely that it will end up in my top 10, but I still loved it.