January 6, 2011 by Zack
Out of all of David O. Russell’s films, which include “Three Kings”, “I Heart Huckabees”, and “Flirting With Disaster”, this may be one of the most accessible to a regular audience. And strangely, it’s one of his most character-influenced. This is a film about people; and more specifically, family. It’s got a boxing background story, but it’s not really about boxing. Maybe that’s why it was called “The Fighter” instead; then again, we already have a film called “The Boxer”. In any event, Russell’s mark isn’t exactly all over this picture–but it’s still very well made, and it’s extremely well acted.
It tells the true story of Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) who was what they call a “Stepping Stone” fighter–basically any fighter that contenders use to beef up their stats or make themselves a contender by beating them. Ward’s problem is that he has no real direction, and a huge part of that is because of his has-been crack-addicted brother, Dicky Ecklund (Christian Bale) who still brags about “knocking down” Sugar Ray Leonard years ago. His brother is also his trainer but he’s far from reliable. He also doesn’t get good match-ups because they’re set up through his mother (Melissa Leo in a role that would be criminal not to nominate an Oscar for). In one instance, he’s supposed to fight someone to get him back on track. He’s fighting a “stepping stone” himself; but the boxer comes down with the flu and instead of backing out and re-scheduling, he fights the back-up fighter who is 20 pounds heavier than Micky and pummels him.
Micky is caught between two worlds. After he is dismantled in his last fight, he is approached by someone to train in Las Vegas, and work for him. His mother, and family including 9 sisters, are appalled. But Micky new girlfriend, played very well by Amy Adams, believes it’s his ticket to freedom and to be a real contender. But Micky doesn’t want to leave his mom or his brother. He believes family is the most important thing to him.
And family is the most important thing to this film. It deals with family dysfunction; and yet, I think as you look at your own family, you can see some connections and actually relate to some of the situations that Micky goes through. You can also begin to understand why he needs his family; but also, why he needs to break away. Micky is literally in a fight between his “new” family (the boxing family), and his own real family. And that is the essence of this film.
There are surprising laughs in this film, too. The sisters are priceless, and some of the things that Dicky does are quite amusing, albeit ridiculous and dangerous. The sick sense of humor this film has at times may be the only indication that it’s David O. Russell’s work. But much like “The Wrestler”, the director takes a back seat to the narrative and lets the story tell itself through its characters. I still have to remind myself that film is directed by Darren Aronofsky.
Overall, this is a solid film. Most of that credit is due to the actors, however, and not as much to the filmmakers or writers. While they are fine, the acting is top notch. Wahlberg is Wahlberg; there really isn’t much to his character to begin with. But Christian Bale and Melissa Leo are just absolute showstoppers. When they are on screen, your eyes are completely glued. They bring this typical “underdog” story to life. But I like the angle that here’s a boxer who is totally dominated by other people; and ultimately, it’s his own choice how he actually makes his breakthrough. But he can’t do it alone. Some may say that omitting the Gatti fights was unfair because that’s what really made Ward a champion. I would maintain again that again, this is not a boxing story. It’s a story about family. And with that, it works just fine the way it is.