Grade: B – Director: David O. Russell Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, and Mickey O’Keefe MPAA Rating: R Running Time: 1 hour, 54 minutes
Cut from the carrion of Raging Bull and Rocky, the only rational explaination for the existence of The Fighter is the Affleck-ian notion that any fable set in the blue-collar streets of a Boston burb deserves cinematic veneration.
The true story of boxer “Irish” Micky Ward and his trainer and half-brother, Dickie Ecklund, remains lore in their hometown of Lowell, Mass. But, the film adaptation of Ward’s fall-and-rise is pat and derivative, the story of a palooka who endures his drug-addled brother and meddlesome family to achieve the sort of greatness that director David O. Russell apparently believes is best shared with the audience via film-ending postscripts.
The film opens in 1993 with Dickie – an ex-pugilist turned reprobate and crack addict – acting as trainer to Micky, a former Golden Gloves champion who has seen his once-promising ranking erode to where he is now regarded as a “stepping stone” up-and-coming fighters use to catapult their own careers. Disserved by the chronically high and/or absent Dickie and his officious manager and mom, Alice (Melissa Leo), Micky looks to revive his dormant career after his brother is sent to prison and Micky embraces the charms of Charlene (Amy Adams), a rough-and-ready barmaid who possesses just enough book-learning to threaten Micky’s gaggle of femullet-sporting half-sisters.
The Fighter is the standard story of the down-and-out fighter looking for one last shot at glory. Unfortunately, the film does not possess sufficient narrative drive, whether inside or outside the ring. Moreover, Russell’s penchant for interjecting humor into his narrative – which worked to great effect in Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees – proves distracting here, fostering a tonal inconsistency that constantly uproots any stab at dramatic tension. As comic relief, Russell usually trots out Micky’s siblings to play their part in some garish Massachusetts minstrel show.
Adams and Bale – whose lone one-on-one scene late in the film is like a breath of fresh air – are the pros in this bunch, although Bale’s widely ballyhooed, sure-fire Oscar-nominated turn often feels like a masterwork of mimicry. The true standout, however, is Leo, whose performance conjures a less sadistic, more boisterous version of Jacki Weaver’s matriarch in Animal Kingdom.
Still, as The Fighter marches steadily to its inevitably feel-good finale, the film’s biggest enigma is not only scrubbing Dickie’s recent relapse into drugs and crime, but also its virtual omission of Micky’s epic fights against Emanuel Burton and Arturo Gatti – three of his four total bouts against them were named Ring Magazine’s Fight of the Year. It’s akin to making Raging Bull without mentioning Jake La Motta’s bouts with Sugar Ray Robinson.
It took Wahlberg – who also coproduces – four years to bring this film to fruition. Unfortunately, the round-robin of directors, screenwriters, and actors linked to the project exacted a narrative toll. Consequently, this Fighter is a scrappy underdog that remains stuck on the undercard.