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Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews The Fighter

When I first heard about The Fighter, I thought “here we go again, yet another boxing movie.”  But then I realized that, though I could certainly list a TON of boxing movies, I haven’t actually seen that many of them.  I’m not at all interested in the “sport” of boxing, and though I definitely enjoy some dark, downbeat films, I’m not a big fan of a lot of violence or gore in movies.  All of which means that it’s rare for me to want to go see a boxing film.

But something about The Fighter sparked some interest in me.  Perhaps it was the cast, or perhaps it was the story of Mark Wahlberg’s years-long effort to bring the real-life story of boxer Micky Ward to life.  Whatever the reason, I’m glad I decided to see the film, because it is absolutely terrific.

Mark Wahlberg has turned in some strong performances over the past few years (even when he’s in films that I don’t really like, such as The Other Guys).  He was, for instance, absolutely brilliant in The Departed (click here for my review).  Born in Dorchester, MA, it’s clear that Mr. Wahlberg felt a strong connection to the scrappy fighter from Lowell, MA, and that shows through every moment of the performance.  Mr. Wahlberg is completely believable as a welterweight boxer, but he also brings an endearing gentleness to the portrayal.  His Micky is soft-spoken and desperately eager to please.  It’s fascinating to me that the film’s narrative arc rests on Micky learning to actually be a little bit selfish and make a decision that will do right for HIM, rather than for his mother, sisters, or brother.

Speaking of his brother (really his half-brother), as good as Mark Wahlberg is as Micky Ward, this movie absolutely 100% belongs to Christian Bale and his performance as Dicky Eklund.  Dicky was once a great boxer and “the pride of Lowell,” but now he’s a crack-addicted shambles of a man who’s convinced himself that training his brother to fight will be his road to a comeback.  Mr. Bale’s performance is mesmerizing.  Dicky is a whirlwind of tics and energy that threatens to fly apart any room or situation that he’s in.  We can see the echoes of his charisma that once made him a local hero, and that perhaps also explains why his loved ones tolerate his behavior.  And his smile.  Oh, his smile is devastating.  It conveys such warmth from the heart of this man-child, but it’s also devastatingly sad and pathetic as we quickly see what a self-destructive force Dicky has become.

(The extraordinary high esteem in which I held Christian Bale’s performance as Dicky was only raised further by the brief clip of the real Micky and Dicky that runs as the closing credits begin to scroll.  It’s a short clip, but in just those few seconds it’s clear how perfectly Mr. Bale was able to capture Dicky.)

The rest of the cast is also strong.  Melissa Leo has, rightly so, received a lot of acclaim (and an Oscar nomination) for her role as the imperious mother hen of Micky and Dicky’s family.  Amy Adams is wonderful as always (I’ve never seen some of her big films like Enchanted, but I loved her in Junebug and Charlie Wilson’s War, and I thought she was dynamite in Julie & Julia even though I was rather lukewarm on that film) as Charlene, the bar-maid who Micky falls for, and who helps him to separate from his destructive family.  Charlene is a much tougher, harder-edged role than I’ve seen Ms. Adams take on before, but she’s terrific.  I think it’s a great step for her, and it really solidifies for me what a tremendous actress she truly is.

Director David O. Russell brings all of the elements together into a truly compelling whole.  The Fighter is intense, and the times the film follows Micky into the ring can be viscerally painful, but it’s not an over-the-top violent or gory film.  Rather, much of the drama is personal.  The film doesn’t spend much time focusing on whether Micky is a tough-enough boxer to defeat his opponents in his matches.  Instead, the focus of the story is on whether Micky’s loyalty to his family will — or should — outweigh what’s best for him and his burgeoning career.  That’s a clever approach for the narrative, and it’s probably why I found The Fighter so powerful, while so many other boxing films have left me cold.  I should also add that I was very pleasantly surprised by the light, almost playful touch Mr. Russell and his actors brought to the story.  At times, The Fighter is very, very funny.

This one didn’t quite make it onto my list of my Top 10 movies of 2010 (coming TOMORROW!!), but it was damned close.

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