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The Fighter Is A Solid Boxing Flick With Unsympathetic Performances

The Fighter
Directed by David O. Russell
Written by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson based on a story by Tamasy, Johnson, and Keith Dorrington
Paramount, 2010

This was originally slated to be Darren Aronofsky’s follow-up to The Wrestler, but he obviously elected to do Black Swan instead. I’m not sure how different this movie would be with him directing, but I think it would have obviously focused on the tremendous pounding that real-life boxer Mickey Ward took over the years.  In to direct is David O. Russell, the much-maligned director best known for a YouTube clip blowing up a Lily Tomlin on the set of I Heart Huckabees, and blasted by George Clooney after his experience with the director on Three Kings.  Well, we know at least one guy who loves Mr. Russell and that’s Mark Wahlberg, who appeared in both of those movies and now, being a big-time producer with his Closest to the Hole Productions, plucked Russell to direct this film.

Boxing movies, like any sports movies, are all about the underdog.  Mickey Ward (Wahlberg) is a struggling boxer from Lowell, Massachusetts, under the promotion of his cracked-out former boxer brother, Dick Eklund (a wonderful method turn by Christian Bale).  Eklund’s main claim to fame is that he knocked out Sugar Ray Leonard back in the late seventies, but it could be argued that Leonard slipped and fell.  With shaky management from his mother, Alice (the suddenly ubiquitous Melissa Leo), and a rag-tag cheering section of cellblock-style white trash sisters, Ward’s boxing career seems entirely contingent upon how far his family can take him, which as it turns out is not much.

Mickey starts dating bartender Charlene Fleming (Amy Adams), who gets more of Mickey’s ear, much to the chagrin of his family, who thinks Charlene is a skank, or “MTV Girl.”  She starts driving him into a positive direction, but he still relies on his brother even though better opportunities without him are presenting themselves.  Eklund has an HBO documentary crew following him, which in his crack-driven mind he believes is documenting his own comeback, but is actually the basis for HBO’s 1995 doc, High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell.  Eventually, Eklund gets in trouble with the law when he tries to make money to help his brother out, and as a result, so does Mickey, who gets his hand crushed in the process.

Mickey doesn’t stay in prison long, but Eklund spends time long enough so that Mickey feels free to go on boxing without him, and suddenly he starts getting better fights and better recognition, leading to a key fight that will lead to a moment of decision for Mickey: to choose his current management, his brother, or a mixture of both, risking to alienate everyone before a title fight.

Wahlberg is in his usually excellent “everyman” mode here.  It’s so odd to think that about Wahlberg considering his history but that’s what he delivers to the screen.  The movie clearly belongs to Bale, looking absolutely unrecognizable from his Batman/Bruce Wayne getup that has made him a superstar.  Very few top notch actors these days would be willing to take a second lead role and basically abusing his body to reach a certain weight after tasting the success of something like Batman.  He’s gaunt, much like his well-publicized Machinist days where he lost an unhealthy amount of weight, and gives two measured performances: one the lovable crackhead, the other a sober, clear-thinking success story.  He’s amazing.  Melissa Leo and Amy Adams give tough-broad performances that are certainly much more than playing requisite female characters.

The boxing scenes are also good in a different way than we are used to.  The thing about boxing movies is we always see these jabs and haymakers that are very unlike real boxing matches that you might see.  The fact is, these punches come fast and in a more controlled fashion, and they come so fast it’s actually hard to see the punch connecting much of the time.  This is how the boxing scenes are done here, with a little less emphasis on those major jaw-destroying punches we see in most boxing movies.

This is also a pretty nice success story for Russell, whose Three Kings looked to jump-start him into one of our most promising filmmakers, but with the nay-saying from Clooney and the awful I Heart Huckabees (which does have its fans) that culminated in Russell being a joke, a movie like The Fighter is his very own comeback story.  I’d like to see that movie.  The guy was definitely left for dead after the Huckabees thing, not having worked for six years.  This is definitely not on par with Three Kings, although it may make a lot more money, but this is still the work of a guy who knows what he’s doing under the right circumstances.

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