Boxing films have become a genre unto themselves, almost always following the same trajectory – rise, fall and victorious rise of the fighter – and riddled with cliché. The Fighter may not always rise to (or overcome) the challenge of all these rivals, but it does eventually come out on top, thanks in no small part to David O. Russell.
Russell doesn't seem like the obvious choice to direct this material – the true story of boxer 'Irish' Micky Ward and his journey to a world title from very humble beginnings – and granted, it's the most mainstream film the director (whose last film was 2004's idiosyncratic, I Heart Huckabees) has made. But he brings his unique spin to the story, enlivening it with a (very surprising and refreshing) sense of humour which never detracts from the drama.
Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) is what is known in the boxing fraternity as a stepping stone; he's a good opponent to help up and coming boxers progress. The younger brother of Dick 'Dicky' Eklund (Christian Bale), a one-time contender whose claim to fame is having put Sugar Ray Leonard on his ass in a 1979 bout, Micky has lived in the shadow of his brother.
That didn't bother him until he was pummelled in an Atlantic City fight by an opponent with 20 pounds on him. He decides then that if he wants to make a run at a title before it's too late, he's going to have to move out from under his brother's shadow and the management of his mother, Alice (an almost unrecognisable Melissa Leo). This move is also encouraged by his new girlfriend, Charlene (Amy Adams, convincingly playing working class), who believes his family is holding him back.
And what a family it is. Alice, with her bleach blonde hair and mutton-dressed-as-lamb wardrobe, presides over a house full of daughters (from three different fathers) who possess more hairspray than moisturiser, and didn't exactly top the class at charm school. A lot of the film's humour arises from this familial dynamic but I don't think Russell or the writers (Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson) are necessarily laughing at the Eklund-Ward clan, even as their depiction borders on white trash caricature.
Alice's pride and joy is Dicky. She, like him, dreams of a comeback which is why she turns a blind eye to his erratic behaviour, brought on by a drug addiction that has left him a skeletal, shell of a man. Christian Bale is so good as Dicky and not just because of the physical transformation or the precision of his speech (we glimpse the real Dicky and Micky in the film's closing credits).
Bale inhabits the skin of this man who continues to live on the one brief, shiny moment in his life (the Leonard bout) which may not have even happened as he chooses to recall. It's a bravura performance, deserving of all the awards attention it has received and the Supporting Actor Oscar Bale seems inevitably headed for.
Amidst all of these colourful characters and scene-stealing performances one could easily forget about Mark Wahlberg. Ironically, the fighter is the most passive person in the film; Wahlberg's Micky is the calm centre of this familial storm which is constantly whirling around him.
I've not been a fan of Wahlberg in the past (I still don't know why he received an Oscar nomination for The Departed) but he anchors The Fighter perfectly. Perhaps his personal involvement in bringing Micky Ward's story to the screen, as well as working once again with Russell (as he did on Huckabees, and Three Kings (1999)), helped keep him focussed, much like the boxer he portrays.
The Fighter doesn't cover any new terrain in the boxing genre (though is mercifully free of training montages), but what it does do, it does very well. And Russell's focus on the people rather than the bouts makes for a far more winning encounter than anticipated.