David O. Russell’s The Fighter, based on the true story of unlikely welterweight champion “Irish” Micky Ward, instantly ranks itself as one of the best boxing movies ever made, right up there with Rocky and Raging Bull. But the film is about a lot more than boxing: as a portrait of white trash struggle in Lowell, Massachusetts, and particularly of Ward’s half-brother, Dicky Eklund, a former fighter struggling with drug addiction, the film packs a knockout punch.
Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) is an Irish-American welterweight living Lowell, Mass., managed by his mother (Melissa Leo) and trained by his half-brother Eklund (Christian Bale), a former boxer and “The Pride of Lowell”, who gained fame for knocking out Sugar Ray Leonard (in a fight he eventually lost). At the start of the film, Micky is about to fight in Atlantic City when his competitor drops out; tasked with fighting an oversized substitution boxer or forfeiting the purse, Micky enters the ring and is pulverized.
Dissatisfied with his career, and the handling by his mother and brother, Micky retreats into working class life in Lowell and considers giving up boxing. But new girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) urges him to contact a manager who offers some more guidance; he has one condition – Dicky, a negative influence, cannot be involved. While attempting to resolve the conflict as peacefully as possible, Micky is forced to decide between his family and his future.
Parallel to Micky’s story is the story of Dicky; a drug addict who rarely shows up to training on time, family members find themselves chasing him out of the local crack house, where he slips out the back window. Dicky has a camera crew following him around at most times; he claims they’re documenting his return to the ring, but they’re actually documenting how far he has fallen, and his continued descent.
If The Fighter often feels incredibly real, it’s because it is: the story of Micky Ward is the kind of Rocky-esque tale that has to be real, because otherwise it would seem too scripted. Beyond that, director Russell nails the working class feel of Lowell, and the actors nail these people; compare to the actual HBO doc that was trailing Eklund, High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell, produced as part of the America Undercover series.
The performances here, as far away from Hollywood glam as you can get, often make the film. Wahlberg is extraordinarily solid: while his familiar screen persona isn’t likely to win awards, he gives us a real rooting interest.
Leo and Adams, both nominated for Best Supporting Actress at this year’s Academy Awards, offer commanding performances (Leo is likely to win the prize). But it’s Bale, as the drug-addled but optimistic brother, who makes the greatest impression: frequently taking method acting to the extreme, he disappears so fully into the role of Dicky Eklund that he often appears unrecognizable (physically, only his death-defying work in The Machinist took him further). A Best Supporting Actor Oscar should be his.
The story of Ward and Eklund is the kind of real-life drama that was destined for the screen; indeed, pre-production on The Fighter seemed to begin as soon as Ward fought Shea Neary in 2000 (the finished film doesn’t even get to Ward’s trio of epic bouts against Arturo Gatti). Wahlberg had been in training for his role since 2005, and at various points in pre-production Brad Pitt and Matt Damon were attached to play Eklund. But it’s impossible to imagine anyone other than Bale in the role.
Director Russell gained some heat in the 90s with the quirky indies Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster, then delivered in a big way with the dark Gulf War comedy Three Kings; in 2004, he lost that heat with I Heart Huckabees (which I, nevertheless, found brilliant), particularly due to a video leaked on the internet featuring him in shouting matches with the cast.
After six years and no realized projects, Russell has displayed a sure-handed touch for real-life drama along with an eye and ear for location and character in The Fighter, and re-established himself as an A-list director.