Though based on a true-life story, “The Fighter” turns out to be almost as blandly formulaic as its title. But while the story holds few surprises, the movie does boast some courtesy of director David O. Russell, whose preference for antsy hand-held cinematography gives it some seedy vitality and who encourages—or permits—many of his actors to emote for the rafters.
Despite the boxing narrative, the picture is actually more a narrative of familial dysfunction, set against the background of Lowell, Massachusetts, a shabby town near Boston. The central figure is Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a nice, soft-spoken welterweight with some genuine potential. But his chances are repeatedly undercut by his mother Alice (Melissa Leo), a hard-as-nails broad who serves as his manager but lacks much skill in the job, and his half-brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), his trainer. Dicky was once an up-and-coming ring star himself—his sole claim to fame is that in a title match against Sugar Ray Leonard, he actually sent Leonard down to the mat (or so he says, endlessly—others hold that Leonard actually slipped and fell). Now Dicky’s an emaciated crack addict and totally unreliable, though he continues to insist that he’s indispensable to Micky. Dicky’s also being followed around by a film crew doing an HBO documentary that he claims is documenting his comeback, though it’s really doing a piece on the ravages of drug use.
The dramatic turning-point comes when Micky takes up with a girlfriend, bartender Charlene Fleming (Amy Adams), who helps convince him that his family is holding him back. (Of course, a contributing factor is that in one of his harebrained schemes Dicky gets busted for impersonating a cop, and in the ensuing melee Micky’s hand gets broken by a police nightstick.) But though he’s under new management that gets him a decent bout, Micky just can’t resist following Dicky’s advice, even though the fellow’s in the clink and the cable documentary reveals him for the loser he is. In fact, after Dicky’s released and Micky’s preparing for an actual title shot, he feels he needs his half-brother in his corner, whatever the guy’s flaws.
From a pugilistic perspective, “The Fighter” follows a predictable course—a lower-class lug makes his way through sheer grit to the title match (though in reality Ward’s biggest bouts still lay before him). And as it turns out, Dicky’s ring strategy for his half-brother turns out to have a decidedly “Rocky” feel—it amounts to Micky’s allowing himself to get pummeled to a bloody pulp before finally unleashing a flurry of blows that knocks out his opponent, much to the shock of both fans and commentators, if not to viewers (even those of us who know nothing of the history).
What sets the movie apart from its many rivals is the deliberately messy, gritty style Russell, with the help of cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, brings to the piece. That’s perhaps to be expected in the fight sequences, which can’t help but have visceral impact, but Russell extends it to the rest of the movie as well. As a result “The Fighter” lurches and staggers through the material surrounding the bouts, too, giving the family melodramatics a pretty jumpy, nervy tone.
That feeling is exacerbated by the performances. Not Walberg’s—he keeps Micky a low-key, amiable fellow, dominated by his harpy of a mother and ticking time-bomb of a sibling. And that’s where the flamboyance comes in. Leo, who’s always had a penchant to go to extremes, indulges it much more than usual here, making Alice a brazen stage-mother who’d put Mama Rose to shame (and is heedlessly protective of Dicky). But though she veers between the comic and the terrifying, she still pales beside Bale. The glimpses we get of the real Eklund during the closing credits show that he’s an over-the-top sort, and Bale is obviously mimicking him to a degree, but the effect isn’t so much to convince us that he’s inhabiting the character as to impress us with how much acting he’s doing and how eye-catching his turn is. In that respect it doesn’t help that Bale has once again lost a good deal of weight to play the part (though thankfully not as much as he did for “The Machinist”). Even that comes across as more a trick to get attention than devotion to reality in this case. There’s a bit of overkill in Adams’ turn as well, as if the actress who’s played pretty demure in the past enjoyed cutting loose. But she’s small potatoes beside the actresses who play Micky’s seven sisters, a platoon of brassy broads (apparently all unmarried and jobless) who surround their mother and her boys and are as alarmingly intense as Alice is.
To be fair, there are a few performances besides Wahlberg’s that are nicely understated. Real-life cop Mickey O’Keefe, playing himself as Micky’s other trainer, imbues the guy with a soulful integrity, and Jack McGee strikes an amusing note as Alice’s put-upon husband. But like Wahlberg to a great extent, they’re pretty much overshadowed by the histrionics surrounding them.
Perhaps that’s what Russell was after. Perhaps he realized that if it were played totally straight, the narrative would be flat and formulaic, and so decided to jazz it up stylistically and give his cast free rein. But the result pushes too hard, making you feel at times like a boxer trapped against the ropes yourself. One can understand the rationale without much appreciating the result.