In the first few moments of The Fighter, you know you’re not stuck in another underdog vs. Goliath, albeit sorta true, sports drama. Beautiful photography, warp-speed editing and pulsing music immediately bring to life high-velocity older brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) strutting through his working class neighborhood, with Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), his younger half-brother, calmer and more genuinely self-assured. With this intriguing beginning, Director David O. Russell (I Heart Huckabees) convinces you that what you’re going to see is a tale of two brothers, locked together like Siamese twins, whose tricky fate is to always be struggling to be free of one another. Anyone who has a sibling knows they’re going to be in for a good dose of reality in this film.
Dicky, skeleton thin, grinning in spite of his rotten teeth, jerking spasmodically like only a crack head can, is preening for a film camera. He imagines he is the subject of an HBO special on his “glorious” boxing career and his intended comeback. In reality, the documentary is about crack addicts in Lowell, Massachusetts. This humiliating truth Dicky will learn a while later as he watches the TV show in prison with his fellow inmates. Actor Christian Bale lost 30 pounds to play this part and he charges it with every ounce of self-destruction and wild egomania that certainly fueled the real man. The performance is so painfully authentic, it makes you cringe. Though my choice for Oscar for Best Supporting Actor is Geoffrey Rush’s complex and subtle performance in The King’s Speech, Mr. Bale’s kinetic achievement, unlike anything he’s done before, deserves all the accolades he’s getting.
Self-delusion and mirages of grandeur seem to be Dicky’s genetic gifts from his mother, Alice Ward (Melissa Leo). She’s a clueless narcissist who infantilizes her oldest, and favorite child, Dicky, to such an extreme that she has to be reminded that her other children exist. Alice was a busy young woman. She had nine children with different fathers. Somewhere among her son Dicky whom she had with a disappeared Mr. Eklund and her son Micky with Mr. Ward, Alice also had seven other children, all girls, second-rate imitations of their mother, with hairsprayed big heads and small minds The latest Dad, George Ward (Jack McGee) wanders in and out of the dysfunctional matriarchy, throwing out grains of sanity that fall on fallow ground.
Ms. Leo gives the film another mesmerizing performance, incredibly convincing if somewhat repulsive, like watching a snake, waiting for it to strike. Likewise, her performance as the low class Mama Grizzly is nowhere near the class act of the layered grief displayed by grandmother Dianne Wiest in Rabbit Hole, certainly not as endurable as young Hailee Steinfield in True Grit, nor as creepily insidious as the other “Mommie Dearest” candidate, Barbara Hershey in Black Swan. Ms. Leo, with a long career behind her, and a surprisingly, some say offensively, ambitious publicity campaign in Hollywood, is the front runner for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
Another Osar contender in the Best Supporting Actress category from this film is Amy Adams who plays Micky Ward’s girlfriend, Charlene Fleming, who learns quickly that her love for Micky requires keeping him away from his toxic family. As always, Adams is incandescent, but I don’t think her role is Osar-worthy and was shocked to see her nominated.
Mark Wahlberg, as the star of the movie, gets little award attention. His role, as the second, overlooked son, who had to escape his brother’ shadow, is a much less bombastic role, but it’s his steadiness and determination that not only carry the film story, but took him in real life to a world championship. Even though he can’t win an Oscar as an actor, Wahlberg has a chance as producer, because the film is nominated also for best film. The film is Wahlberg’s labor of love, taking him ten years to bring the story to the screen. He worked out for four years to perfect his boxing technique–and watching his convincing boxing moves was just as enjoyable as being transformed by Natalie Portman’s ballet grace in Black Swan, which took her ten months of grueling work to perfect.
Micky, in his late 20s, despite several disappointing losses in the ring, and a lifetime of being discouraged by his mother, decides to seek his life’s dream and break into professional boxing. The “Duo of Obnoxiousness,” Mom and Dicky, insist on being his managers, much to the disgust of everyone else in the boxing community. In a scene that could have come right out of Scott Peck’s study in evil, People of the Lie, Mom and Dicky, like serpents hissing in his ear, convince Micky, against his better judgment, to enter a fight with an opponent 20 pounds heavier than he is. He’s beaten to a pulp and needs months to recover completely. Even so, he still doesn’t see the harm his family is doing to him.
Clearing up that perspective has to fall to a stranger. Enter Charlene (played by Amy Adams), a former track champion currently down on her luck as a bartender at the local sports bar. When they become lovers, Charlene gives Micky the inspiration he needs to seek his destiny, without his weird family. It turns out that Charlene, while adorable and seemingly genteel, is not afraid to bring out her claws to defend her man–in a scene that had me applauding in sisterhood, she gives Alice and the Sistie Uglies their nasty comeuppance. Micky experiences first-hand and for the first time, what it’s like to have unqualified support. He breaks from his mother’s vice-like grip and refuses to be sabotaged by his brother’s irresponsibility.
But in time, through the ups and downs of the script (based on life), after he comes out of prison, Dicky straightens up a bit and becomes the coach Micky needs. Such a collaboration is not a walk in the park. Micky is not as young as his opponents, nor as abundantly financed. He still works out–not at the fancy Las Vegas digs like his opponents do–but at his seedy hometown gym.
He makes it to the top by performing like a fighting machine, staying the ring, getting punished longer than any other contender. He eventually wears down his competition, and sends them to the floor with his famous strategy of hammering them repeatedly in their bellies and when they bend over in agony– he’d smash them in the head for a knock-out. Ward wasn’t a talented fighter, per se, he was just the most aggressive. The TV cameras loved him and he became famous for being the most photographed fighter ever. When he wins the world light welterweight title, darn, you’re cheering out loud and there’s a lump in your throat for the hometown boy who made good — finally.
The Fighter is a peerless family drama, a different boxing film, a true feel-good- underdog-takes-the-prize success story. Above all it is the story of a blue-collar American hero and we can never have too many of those movies. In addition to its astonishing three nominations for supporting actors, The Fighter also garnered nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing and Best Script.
Good luck, Mark Walberg!