Forget the gross trends of sequels and remakes: 2010 has been the year of Man-on-a-Mission movies, as well as Based-on-a-True-Story (BOATS) movies. The former films are somewhat excusable as disposable entertainment, as they tend to be spring or summer blockbusters designed to sell the most popcorn and excite the least amount of brainpower in their audiences. The latter, though, are problematic because the “real life” elements are often ground up and filtered through the Hollywood Convention strainer—resulting in predictable, weepy, boring crap that has the same effect on audiences as the Man-on-a-Mission picture (the joke is that people usually think there’s a qualitative difference somehow).
Mark Wahlberg has made a fine career out of starring in movies that are based on true stories and ones that play as if they were. When he’s not starring in crime dramas like The Departed, he can often be found putting his beefy hangdog looks to good use as a local loser who gets a once-in-a-lifetime shot to realize his dreams; and while his debut in Boogie Nights was impressive and Rock Star was pretty good (mostly because it was a re-skinned version of Boogie Nights), by the time Invincible came out in 2006 I was convinced that Wahlberg was just filming these easy parts in between real acting jobs and producing gigs. After awhile, all of the stories run together, and what plot points the trailers don’t outright spoil can be easily figured out by anyone who’s ever seen a movie—real life or not, Wahlberg’s slice-of-life films follow a formula as tried and true as the Big Mac’s special sauce.
So you can imagine how bored I was by the trailer for David O. Russell’s The Fighter, in which we see Wahlberg as Micky Ward, a hard-working regular Joe from Boston (sorry, a “haahd-woikin’ reg’la Joe from Baahstin”) who dreams of following in the boxing-champion footsteps of his crack-addicted brother, Dicky (Christian Bale). As I fidgeted in my seat, I ticked off the BOATS conventions: gray-hoodie jogging montage; courting of a suspiciously attractive down-on-her-luck bar tender; crazy family member(s) who keep(s) the soon-to-be-magnificent hero down; defeat montage; victory montage; cheering montage (accompanied by glorious, swelling music); “Based on a True Story” as the title fades up from black. It was the most Disney-fied non-Disney trailer I’d seen in awhile, and I had zero interest in The Fighter after it was over.
Thank God I’m committed to watching every movie I can (regardless of desire); otherwise I would have missed out on the best film I’ve seen all year.
The plot is everything you’d expect, down to the outcome of the climactic Big Fight. But the great thing about The Fighter is that it’s a complex family drama disguised as a boxing movie. It’s also a gripping story about drug addiction and denial, and how holding on to past glories can be just as destructive as crack cocaine. You may think you’ve seen The Fighter before, but I guarantee that you haven’t, thanks in large part to the clever (but not cute) screenplay by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson, and a uniformly terrific cast that deserves a separate Oscars broadcast—just to make it fair to everyone else.
Wahlberg’s role is the subtlest. For much of the movie, Micky Ward is a ping-pong ball, a non-presence in his own life that gets batted between Dicky and their controlling manager/mother, Alice (Melissa Leo). Micky trains for small-time matches against opponents he hopes will be stepping stones to greater matches, all while living in the shadow of Dicky, who’s the subject of an HBO documentary about the boxer’s comeback (in 1978—fifteen years before The Fighter takes place—he blew his title shot, but still managed to knock down Sugar Ray Leonard). Dicky has always been the pride of Lowell, Massachusetts thanks to that fight and his family’s refusal to let anyone forget about it.
It isn’t until Micky meets Charlene (Amy Adams) that he gets a modicum of self-esteem—maybe for the first time ever. She’s a directionless, college-educated bartender who likes Micky but doesn’t take any bullshit from him; she’s not a feisty Beantown caricature either (that honor is reserved for Micky and Dicky’s seven teased-hair layabout sisters). Typically, this character would be used as a prop or a project for the main character to draw strength from, but Charlene’s role is to kick Micky’s ass into gear and keep his crazy family from dragging him down with them. Adams works wonders with the part, and acts as our way into this crazy world of shattered dreams, drugs and boxing.
In a way, the film is as much about her fight against Alice Ward as it is Micky’s journey to the top. And Melissa Leo makes Alice the meanest, biggest-hearted bitch I’ve seen in quite some time. Her family is everything to her, and her tendency to over-nurture blinds her to her son’s crack problem, her other son’s frustration at having to deal with that problem, and the fact that her daughters have apparently grown up to be a pack of ignorant, hive-mind animals. Alice pegs Charlene as a threat instantly, and does everything in her power to drive her and Micky apart. Leo creates a devious, ruthless character disguised as a loving stage mom, and what keeps her from seeming over the top is the fact that we believe that she believes that she’s doing the right thing all the time; the most dangerous kind of monster is the one that lacks self-awareness.
The Fighter ’s crown jewel, though, is Christian Bale. It’s refreshing to see him act again after being stranded in the blockbuster wasteland of the new Batman and Terminator films, and the phoned-in laziness of Public Enemies. His turn as Dicky is a ghastly reminder that Bale is one of the finest—if not the finest—actors of my generation, a performer so committed that he dropped a ton of weight and picked up a deliciously charming Boston accent (I wouldn’t be surprised if he actually became a crack addict in order to go full Method). Dicky is a cartoon for much of the movie, and that works in the film’s favor. His big-eyed antics; his jumping out the window of a crack house multiple times; his incessant bragging about the Sugar Ray bout—all of these things denote a fractured, addictive personality that uses just the right amount of exaggeration to show us how obvious his problem is to everyone except his mother and sisters. Bale fashions a deeply troubled character here, and in his constant thousand-yard-stare shadowboxing exercises, one can see the cumulative effects of parental expectations, failure, disappointment and self-protective delusion. Dicky is completely ridiculous and completely tragic, and as much as I wanted him to go away for the good of everyone, I was always pulling for him to succeed—my investment in him was often greater than what I felt for his brother.
The Fighter would have been solid enough with these performances alone, but David O. Russell completes the package with a beautifully shot, perfectly paced movie. He captures the flavor of Lowell in the same way that Spike Lee made Bed-Stuy feel like a foul-mouthed Sesame Street in Do the Right Thing. The neighborhood is filled with colorful characters and fickle fans, but they never overshadow the main action; when Micky walks into a diner after having blown a major fight, the stench of failure is as thick as burnt coffee, but there aren’t any hisses or shouts of “Loser!” to punctuate the message.
Most importantly, the fighting scenes are very exciting and easy to follow. Micky’s boxing style is one in which he wears his opponents down by taking severe beatings before striking back; and even though we see this a few times, Russell keeps us on edge, wondering if he’ll take too much of a beating and be sapped of the strength to finish. He also places Wahlberg center stage for each of the matches, letting us know that the actor is throwing and receiving the blows instead of a stunt person; it’s another level of commitment that sells the believability of an already gripping story.
Though Wahlberg spent more than four years struggling to get this movie made, The Fighter feels like an antidote to Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (Aronofsky is also a producer of this film). That movie was paper-thin Awards Season chum anchored by a pretty solid performance by Mickey Rourke; I couldn’t stand the fact that the film didn’t contain a single well-rounded character for me to root for—its hype machine and Oscar campaign talked it up as the next Rocky, but I found it to have at least one reel missing (the one that would’ve helped me give a shit about the main guy).
By contrast, The Fighter gives you everything you need to know about the characters, their motivations, and the size of their pitfalls in relation to the size of their triumphs. I hope that Aronofsky has learned something from hanging around people who know how to shoot a goddamned biopic, and can use some of that knowledge to recover from the one-two-punch of shittiness that is The Wrestler and Black Swan. But I digress… The Fighter is a wonderful film that deserves all the praise it’s getting—and probably more. It’s a refreshing take on the underdog sports story whose emotional victories happen before the bell rings on the climactic Big Fight. This is the most exciting and satisfying picture of 2010.
[Originally published @ Kicking the Seat on 12/22/10.]