Starring Mark Wahlberg, Amy Adams and Christian Bale
There’s something romantic and tragic about the boxer. The best boxing films are less about the fighting and more about the fighter. “Rocky,” “Raging Bull” and “Million Dollar Baby” all are movies where the primary conflicts take place outside the ring. “The Fighter,” for the most part, is one of those movies.
Based on a true story, Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg) is a punching bag—a boxer with a little talent, a lot of heart and so much baggage weighing him down that he can’t get his head straight. His brother, Dickey (Christian Bale), is a former boxer who became a hometown hero after knocking Sugar Ray Leonard down—not out, mind you, but down. Some say he slipped. It’s the stuff local legends are made of. Since his glory days, Dickey has devolved into a crack addict who gets by on his reputation and his constant running mouth.
Mickey is managed by his malignant mother (Melissa Leo), a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking basket case, who still believes that Dickey can make a comeback. Meanwhile, she treats Mickey like used goods and his career like an afterthought. Dickey is supposed to be his trainer, but he’s too busy getting high to care. After a series of bad defeats, Mickey has started to reconsider his future. As a boxer, he has never hit his stride. He is devoted to his family, even though they have done very little to help him. Emotionally, it’s an abusive relationship.
Mickey’s fortunes begin to change after meeting an opinionated bartender named Charlene (Amy Adams). She gives Mickey a hard dose of reality. Together, they decide to get his career back on track. The only way to do that is to fire his mother as manager and abandon the unreliable Dickey as his trainer. With new focus and new motivations, Mickey is able to win a few fights. As Mickey’s stock rises, Dickey’s drops fast. His illegal activities eventually lead to his arrest. His addictions have finally gotten the better of him. Despite all their failings, Mickey still feels certain obligations to his family. When he finally gets a title shot, he tries to bring everyone along for the ride, despite the potential cost.
“The Fighter” is a good film, but it never quite gets to “great.” It’s predictable and suffers from a limp protagonist. Mark Wahlberg’s Mickey is nowhere near as interesting as Christian Bale’s Dickey. Bale owns every frame he’s in. His portrayal is engaging and heartbreaking: The sunken cheeks, the cracked-out eyes, the thinning hair. Bale goes to lengths that most actors never would. One could make an argument that Bale is the best actor working today. He’s not perfect. There have been missteps. His performance in “Terminator: Salvation” was a one-note mess. And I love “The Dark Knight,” but Bale may be the least interesting part of Nolan’s “Batman” films. Still, over the past 10 years, he has shown a level of depth and commitment lacking in his peers. From his subtle work in films like “Public Enemies” and “I’m Not There,” to more ranged performances in “The Prestige” and “Rescue Dawn,” Bale has proven himself to be the most varied actor of his generation.
“The Fighter” may be his best performance to date. Dickey is such an unlikable character—as both an absentee father to his young son and an absentee trainer to his younger brother. Dickey is a fantastic tragedy. His eventual turnaround feels earned.
The heart of “The Fighter” is about what drives men to succeed. Once again, it’s less about who wins the fight and more about being strong enough to step into the ring. Director David O’Russell (“I Heart Huckabees”) delivers a solid drama—not exactly a cinematic haymaker but a film worth seeing.