David O. Russell has continually pushed the Hollywood conventions over his short but illustrious career. Although beginning his career with indie comedies Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster, it was with the controversial yet heavy-hitting and darkly comic Gulf War action film Three Kings (1999) that put the director on the map. Yet since his 2004 follow-up I ♥ Huckabees, an existentialist detective story, Russell has been fairly quiet. So it was with some surprise that he would return to the director’s chair after a six-year absence to tackle the well-worn boxing genre. Back to at least 1976′s Rocky and the operatic heights of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, it seems that strapping on the gloves and stepping into the ring is Oscar gold, with the more recent Million Dollar Baby earning four Academy Awards including Best Picture. With a recent round of acting wins at the BFCA Critics’ Choice Awards, and a sure-fire set of nominations at this year’s Oscars, it is a fair bet that The Fighter will follow that proud tradition.
Based on the true story of professional boxer “Irish” Micky Ward (played here by Mark Wahlberg, The Other Guys) and his old half-brother an ex-boxer Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale, Public Enemies), The Fighter tells the story of the parallel lives of the brothers on the streets of Lowell, Massachusetts. As Micky prepares for his next fight, his crack-addicted brother Dicky is too busy reliving his glory days in the ring with Sugar Ray Leonard to see the damage he is doing to his brother. Their mother Alice (Melissa Leo, Welcome to the Rileys) perpetuates their self-destructive behave in her obsessive attempts to ensure her boys remain the ‘Pride of Lowell’. When Mickey meets barmaid Charlene Fleming (Amy Adams, Leap Year) he finds the inspiration to resuscitate his career.
Outside of the boxing world, Mickey Ward’s name may not mean much. Yet his comeback career earned him the WBU Light Welterweight Champion of the world and three Fight of the Year awards from The Ring magazine. These sorts of victories may be rare in the boxing world, but they are well and truly familiar to cinema-goers, who have been watching comeback kids go the distance for decades. It is in recognition of both of these things that Russell’s film -scripted by the unlikely trio of Scott Silver (8 Mile), Paul Tamasy (Air Bud) and Eric Johnson (his debut screenplay) – chooses to concentrate on the people that surround Micky as much as the boxing itself.
Wahlberg has been an Russell regular since Three Kings, and during that time Wahlberg’s star has risen through taking a variety of often challenging and diverse roles. From the big-budget leads of Planet of the Apes and Max Payne, Wahlberg has also demonstrated his acting chops in smaller roles, including a memorable turn in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. There is not much about the character of Micky Ward that particularly challenges the actor, with an understated performance that (as good as it is) tends to be overwhelmed by the amazing talent around him. Indeed, Wahlberg has already given us a turn as a sportsman overcoming odds to achieve greatness in 2006’s Invincible. Rather, the acting accolades fall squarely into the family’s court, with Bale’s turn as the junkie brother reminding us of Bale’s pre-Batman Begins commitment to the craft. Once again dropping an incredible amount of weight (as he did in 2004’s The Machinist), Bale embodies the often comic ineptitude of the character, made tragic by a number of revelations throughout the film. He is another strong character to root for, with his failures and successes not just mirroring Micky’s, but inexorably tied to them as well.
The role of women is often sidelined in sports films, to either the destructive distraction or the other goal to be obtained. Rocky‘s Adrian (portrayed by Talia Shire) was a timid pet store clerk stoically supporting Rocky through his training. In Raging Bull, women (or more accurately, under age girls) are largely seen as tied to his downfall. The woman of Lowell, Massachusetts certainly don’t suffer this same cinematic fate, with Russell gathering a strong collection of women that actively engage both the audience and the male protagonists. Melissa Leo, as the ballsy matriarch of the family, delivers one of the performances of a lifetime. The often underrated actress, perhaps best known for her stint on TV’s Homicide: Life on the Streets and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, is a bogan force to be reckoned with, keeping in line not only her two boys but a Greek chorus of sisters who border on the out of control. Then, of course, is the love interest in Amy Adams, stripping down from her glamorous public persona (or the ones depicted in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day or Enchanted) to prove that you don’t have to look rough around the edges to be as tough as nails.
Part of the appeal of the sports film is the inherent tragedy and redemption that is to be found in the genre. Like executive producer Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler before it, the desire to root for the underdog comes from a place deep inside all of us that wants to break free of the lot in life we have been given. Then again, we could just enjoy watching men beat the living snot out of each other. Either way, The Fighter achieves both of these goals and packs a one hell of an emotional punch.
The Fighter was released by Roadshow Entertainment in Australia on January 20, 2011.