By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
Like Rocky, it’s about an underdog fighter. Like Raging Bull, it’s about dysfunctional brothers, one of whom is a fighter. And like Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, The Departed, The Town, and Shutter Island, it’s about the sound of those colorful “pahk the cah” accents that indicate Boston or somewhere near it.
Mark Wahlberg is “Irish” Micky Ward, a promising welterweight boxer being trained by his older half-brother, Dicky Eklund, played by Christian Bale, an ex-boxer who, back in the day (when he got in the ring with Sugar Ray Leonard and, the legend goes, actually knocked him down, even though he lost the fight) was Micky’s childhood hero.
But that was a long time ago, when Dicky was promising as well. Now he’s retired from the ring, is in his brother’s corner, but is as undependable as can be.
Oh, he believes in his younger sibling, but the crack he’s addicted to and the crime he turns to to indulge his needs doesn’t help him to act like it.
Micky and Dicky’s domineering and ferociously possessive mom (Melissa Leo), the mother of seven daughters and two sons, also loves Micky to death and roots for him around the clock. Manages him, too. Well, make that mismanages.
Mostly, she’s the gatekeeper, keeping everyone who could possibly do Micky any real good, who could advance his career in any meaningful way, away from him.
So it’s not out of character for her (or her seven fully grown daughters, who seem to do nothing but sit around the house like Disney’s Seven Dwarves awaiting Snow White’s arrival, or pour into and out of the car on a local errand like a circus clown act) to take an instant dislike to the fetching local bartender, a college dropout played by Amy Adams.
Soon after she and Micky start dating, she, fighting for her man, advises him to snip those apron strings, resist the visceral tug of brotherly and sisterly love, and turn elsewhere for “help.”
Why? Because the way she sees it, Micky’s taking a lot of punches in and out of the ring. And with a trainer and manager like Micky’s got, who needs enemies?
The Fighter is certainly a boxing thriller that builds to an in-the-ring climax and engages our natural rooting interest. But it spends even more time as a punchy psychodrama about a black-and-blue blue-collar family.
Director David O. Russell (Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees, Flirting with Disaster) works from a measured screenplay by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson that uses an HBO documentary about Dickie’s comeback being filmed as a framing device.
Russell keeps the actual match footage on the relatively brief side and shoots the fights from a distance: we’re not privileged to be in the ring, but near it, or watching it on television.
As for the domestic conflicts, Russell sometimes lets the crowded family portrait spill over into exaggerated caricature, but his quartet of principals, each of whom could be identified by the film’s title, is arresting and vivid and memorable.
Finally, though, it’s the acting that provides the knockout punch to The Fighter, and the acting is superb.
Wahlberg, also one of the film’s producers, is solid as the passive, levelheaded pugilist, always wanting to do the right thing, and the actor is obviously and impressively skilled in the ring. And Adams, usually so pertly endearing, shows us her impressively tough, foul-mouthed side.
But it’s Bale and Leo who deliver a pair of Oscar-caliber knockouts as two severely deluded loved ones. As the manic, unreliable big bro and crackhead, Bale — a long way from The Dark Knight — is uncanny, disappearing inside his role as the irresponsible mentor, still living in the fuzzy past.
And Leo, nominated as best actress for 2008’s Frozen River, is downright scary, doing wonders with her barking turn as a full-time matriarch who puts the “mother” in “smother.”
Both deserve Oscar nods.
So we’ll jab at 3 stars out of 4 for The Fighter, a bristling, fact-based, splendidly acted tale of trained fisticuffs, family infighting, and a boxer’s painful struggle to escape Palookaville.