Review: The Fighter Triumphs

In the clearing stands a boxer, and a fighter by his trade

And he carries the reminder of every glove that laid him down or cut him

'Til he cried out in his anger and his shame

I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains.

- The Boxer, Paul Simon

The Fighter follows the story of "Irish" Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his drug-addled former champion brother Dickie Eklund (Christian Bale) as they attempt to take Micky back to the top of the boxing game. In their Massachusetts hometown, Eklund has long been known as the "Pride of Lowell" for his boxing prowess, but crack addiction and a stint in prison keep him from ever realizing his dreams in the same ways that Ward could. Ward struggles to do the right thing in a world of limited options, but as he begins to win more and more fights, he finds things getting complicated.

There are some spectacular performances in this film, from Christian Bale's utter transformation into a hardened string bean of a drug addict to Mark Wahlberg's bulky boxer unsure of how to get to where he wants to be in life. It certainly explains Wahlberg's colossal figure in films over the past few years, as he has undoubtedly been bulking up for quite some time. (It was fun to say "Starring Mark Wahlberg's Arms" about nearly every movie he's been in recently.) Amy Adams as Ward's forceful girlfriend is fantastic, and this dramatic departure from her good-girl roles of late is welcome. Adams let us know that she had incredible dramatic potential in Sunshine Cleaning, and The Fighter has given her the space to work it out and show us what else she's got. From her fierce determination and aggressive devotion to Ward, her tough exterior houses a molten sexuality and haunting vulnerability that is as heartbreaking as it is entrancing. Whenever compassion peeks out through the pain visible on her face, it is one of the few moments of solace in a film that feels like a lot of callous confrontation.

Melissa Leo is powerful as the matriarch of the family clan and Ward's manager, leading the discussions and the wild crew of adult daughters who seem equal parts harpies and freeloaders. The family is the controlling factor in Ward's career, his devotion to them and their demands of him equally locked in an all too familiar codependency that threatens to lose them everything they wanted. Eklund is the cherished and favored son, despite his inability to take care of himself. The family dynamics between the nine adult children and parents are often hard to watch, but fascinating in that voyeuristic way that watching someone else's fights can be.

The fight scenes aren't the typical stuff of boxing films that I've ever seen, no stylistic romanticizing in close-ups or lustily drawn-out slow-motion investigations of the rippling male form, but incredibly realistic and long drawn-out scenarios where two human beings pummel each other into submission. Actually, that sounds like most fight scenes. However, The Fighter stays true to the late-'90s/early-2000s time period as all the fights are shot in video format as if scratchily coming through a TV screen. And it works. You feel every one of those punches as they land, but it still feels as if there isn't enough boxing in the film. A well-designed film is one that doesn't distract you with music, costumes, and sets. Yes, those things are all present in The Fighter, but they're so thoroughly well done that it doesn't call attention away from the performances or the plot. The film is allowed to unfold without garish imposition from any corner.

For a movie about crack addiction and fighting, The Fighter certainly comes across as strangely hilarious at times. Whether it's intentional or not, the sharp dialogue is delivered with impeccable comedic timing, whether it's the deranged ramblings of Melissa Leo, the cat-fight hysterics of Amy Adams and the sisters, or the antics of Christian Bale. However, after a while the laughter of the audience I saw it with began to strike me as a way to dismissively deal with difficult emotional situations. Yes, there are some moments that are clearly supposed to be funny, but the desperate scrambling of a man so high out of his mind that he can't function on a basic level aren't portrayed in the film as laughable. Director David O. Russell has too much compassion and interest in his characters to mock them for 115 minutes, and after the first few times that Eklund's crack addiction causes his family intense anguish or despair, I stopped laughing.

Strangely, The Fighter isn't always interesting or amusing in the same way that I had expected it to be. Instead, it's an incredibly strong character-driven drama that tells a story the way a story would be told from person to person, with all the little details left in. There's very little romanticizing or coddling, everyone is just as hard as nails as you might expect, which makes the smaller moments of forgiveness or grace that much more potent when they slip in, almost unnoticed.

Grade: A-