It Doesn't Take A Big Man To Knock Somebody Down, Just A Little Courage To Lift Him Off The Ground
David O. Russell’s The Fighter is based on the true story of Micky Ward, a stepping-stone boxer, and his older brother Dick Eklund, whose claim to fame was dropping Sugar Ray Leonard several years and many crackpipe hits long ago. Because it’s beholden to the framework of Ward’s technical boxing style and the fights he fought, the story has a tendency to lag and meander. But what elevates it to championship status is the acting, because it’s kind of ecstatically horrifying to watch Christian Bale and Melissa Leo tear themselves and everyone else apart. Ultimately, the family dynamic and the bitter squabble of this destructive family is what makes The Fighter worth watching.
A documentary crew is filming Dick Eklund (Christian Bale) for his supposed comeback. Meanwhile, he’s training his kid half-brother Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a slugger with a fierce hook who most promoters book to boost their more promising fighters. Both Micky and Dickie are local boys, and some folks glad-hand them around the cameras as Dickie clutches desperately to the fading glory of his ancient victories. Managing Micky is his mother Alice (Melissa Leo), a frost-blond miniskirt wearing harridan, who dotes on her baby Dickie while berating everyone else around her. She’s on her second husband — Micky’s father, George (Jack McGee, one of the finest goddamn character actors working today) — and surrounds herself with a veritable Southie Greek chorus of daughters, with nicknames like Red Dog, Tar, Pork, Little Alice, and Beaver. Everyone screams at each other as only loving families can, bringing up petty squabbles and scalding each other with their shrieks and gibbers.
The Fighter isn’t a film about fighting with gloves as much as it is about fighting with the people you love. Dicky surrounds himself with crackheads. When he’s not fidgeting and bouncing around the gym training his brother, he’s holed up in an abandoned suburban tract house puffing on the rock. He’s so petrified that his mother will find out — even though everyone knows this is where he is — he often leaps out a second story window into a pile of mattress and trashbags to evade her. It’s such a Warner Brothers level of zany and endearing, if not for the fact that he’s been destroying his body, mind, and life with drugs. The film rightfully becomes more about the consequences of Dicky’s drug use and how it threatens to tear him away from his brother. It’s Micky’s new bartender girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) and his cop cornerman, Mickey O’Keefe (played by the actual Mickey O’Keefe), who have to pull him out of the shark teeth of his family, who will throw him to the wolves given the opportunity. He actually fights one fight for the money against a boxer who outweighs him by 20 pounds, because if he doesn’t, nobody gets paid. But Micky fights, because he’s that blindly devoted to his family.
The chemistry between the characters is what drives this picture, and it’s more like physics since everything is so frictional and volatile. Micky thinks he’s his own man, but mostly he does what people tell him to do. Charlene wants more for her life, but she toils away in a bar in Lowell, lording a degree that she never obtained over everyone. Alice just wants what’s best for her family, which invariably means what’s best for her, and she’ll wield guilt like a mace like only a mother can. Dicky’s a fucking mess, internally and externally, a desperate loser whose worn out the welcome on his victory long ago and chokes it for every last infinitesimal drop he can muster. The sisters lurk like magpies, harping and squawking at everyone, including each other, hunched on couches and stoops, waiting to attack when the opportunity arises. Who really cares about shady managers and promoters when this is the crucible where everything else occurs?
Thankfully the acting is strong because the boxing scenes are subpar. If it joins the ranks of Raging Bull and Rocky, as it so desperately yearns to do, it won’t be because of the fighting. Micky Ward wasn’t an explosive fighter like LaMotta nor was he a punching bag like Balboa. He’s a technical fighter, much of which involves lying in wait, blocking a lot of punches and then hurling a few here and there to do damage. Even Russell blazes through matches, hitting the highlight reels. It’s not to say the fights are boring … but they’re kind of boring.
But you won’t give two shits about who threw what punch when after you watch the performances, especially those of Melissa Leo and Christian Bale. Wahlberg has settled into a nice confidence, which allows him to be a whiny badass, the kind of guy who could severely beat you but then would take a few slaps from his mother and stand there abashed. Amy Adams shows a new facet as a brook-no-bullshit gal who can taunt and fight when needed. Jack McGee and Mickey O’Keefe are great, mostly because they are blustery red-faced Irishmen who spend most of their time yelling on the redline of the heart-attack-o-meter, and the rest doing that basset-hound somber quiet consolation.
Here are the names of the actresses who played the gang of sisters: Melissa McMeekin, Bianca Hunter, Erica McDermott, Jill Quigg, Dendrie Taylor, Kate O’Brien, and Jenna Lamia. I can’t tell who was which, because it doesn’t matter. They are a collective cacophony of rage and big fucking hair, a combination of the still perched birds from The Birds and that cloud of bar violence that swirls through Andy Capp cartoons.
But let’s talk why Melissa Leo and Christian Bale are going to win the Oscar this year. It’s not even a question anymore. Melissa Leo has always been a chameleon. She played practically two different women in Conviction, but for God’s sake, her Alice is the stuff that Julia Roberts was hoping to tap into for Erin Brockovich. Except here it is in its pure undistilled glory, like when Zeus nuked that chick when he appeared in his full-god form. She is explosive, a dynamic performance, like a vindictive and selfish Olympia Dukakis in Moonstruck. And then we’ve got Bale. He shaved himself down to double digit weight for The Machinist and that was enough to make him frightening. Now take that, and make him a spastic goofball crackhead. He can yell at as many fucking crew members as it takes if this is the end result. Bale’s like a shark off his Ritalin, constantly bouncing and moving and ticking and shaking. He’s got this giddy energy, this lovability while he’s driving the bus of his life off a cliff. You never doubt for a moment why Micky sticks with his brother despite his being a pretty severe crackhead. Bale’s been working up to this caliber of performance his entire career; it pays off. Nobody with the exception of Geoffrey Rush has come remotely close to topping him.
The Fighter ends with a nice little coda showing the real Dicky Eklund and Micky Ward, but it would’ve been better without it. The real Dicky is feeble shadow of what Bale was bringing. Plus, it was a really desperate attempt to say, “And all of this was real! Dicky went to prison, he almost fucked up his brother’s life, but everything turned out all right.” Which this doesn’t need. With that caterwauling horde as a family, there’s no way things should turn out well.
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