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Friday, December 3, 2010

It’s Time to Root for ‘The Fighter’


The Fighter = 4 out of 5 Stars
Dickie:  He’s my younger brother.  Taught him everything he knows.  I’m still his trainer
Sometimes it is not easy to come up with titles.  I could have easily said, “The Fighter is a knockout,” but that would have been way too cliché.  I mention this, because in The Fighter, Mark Wahlberg stars as a boxer who did not have an easy path to getting a chance at a title shot.  So you see the titles…oh nevermind.  My poor attempt at a humorous connection aside, this is a strong biopic that features some very good performances, particularly by Christian Bale.  It is a movie that features boxing, but much of that aspect comes second to the more highlighted family dynamic, with two brothers coming to terms with who they are and what they can hope to achieve.  While the film may be a bit unfocused in terms of its overall drive, I found the story to be handled in a very entertaining manner, which tends to happen when I watch boxing movies.

Wahlberg and Bale star as half-brothers Mickey Ward and Dickie Eklund.  The two live in Lowell, Massachusetts and are somewhat well-known for their status in life among the people there.  Dickie was once a promising, young boxer, whose claim to fame was going the distance with Sugar Ray Leonard in a match and even knocking him down at one point.  Unfortunately, Dickie’s life turned to crack addiction and various scrapes with the law.  But now, Dickie is being followed by a camera crew, documenting his supposed comeback.  Mickey, on the other hand, is an up-and-coming young boxer, fighting in the welterweight leagues.  His mother, played by Melissa Leo, works as his manager and Dickie helps out in his training.

The movie begins in 1993, following several losses that Mickey has suffered.  Living almost in squalor, divorced from a previous marriage, with little access to his daughter, Mickey is ready to give up boxing after another painful loss.  However, a new relationship with the local bartender, Charlene (Amy Adams), along with some other developments, eventually leads to Mickey working his way up in the ranks.  These other developments mainly involve Dickie, who may know how to train Mickey for the matches, but has to first deal with his addictions and bad life choices, if he ever wants to stop being a destructive force in Mickey’s life.


 The film was directed by David O. Russell, which makes this he and Wahlberg’s third collaboration together (they previously worked on Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees).  Clearly the two have a good working relationship, because I admire the work Wahlberg has done in those films, and this film manages to get another strong performance out of him.  Mickey Ward has the attitude of a guy with dreams and the drive to rise higher, but he is not too cocky about what he is capable of and holds a lot of emotion back until the time is right.  This is the kind of role that Wahlberg can play well and it was apparently a very personal one.  Wahlberg grew up near Lowell, MA, and was instrumental in getting this film made.  He is credited as a producer and worked hard on getting into great shape to portray the character.
Mickey:  Guy had twenty pounds on me; I never should have fought him.
Charlene:  Why did you?
Mickey: Everybody said I could beat him.
Charlene:  Who’s everybody?
Mickey:  My mother, my brother.
As good as Wahlberg may be in the lead, however, it is Bale who truly shines as Dickie.  Going through another transformation in terms of creating a character (like The Machinist, he, once again, lost a ton of weight and had himself looking older by receding his hairline and wearing dirty crack addict-teeth), Bale is a dominant force in this movie.  Dickie has the most compelling story arc, almost upstaging the film as to who the main character actually is.  From his accent and his mannerisms to the varying emotional states he goes through during this film, everything Bale has done with this character is fantastic and will surely garner him much award praise for the near future.  Bale may have had an unremarkable 2009, between Terminator Salvation and being overshadowed by Depp in Public Enemies, but this year he will certainly be getting the comeuppance he deserves for his work as an actor.


The other supporting performances are quite good as well.  Adams is first-rate as Charlene, the hottie bartender, who is capable of making some good decisions, knowing what she knows now, after a short-lived college life consisting of partying and bad choices.  She is a reflection of Dickie’s character, but from the cleaner side of a mirror.  Leo is also quite good as the mother, Alice.  She is a character who is much more devoted to looking at the strength of family bonds, than seeing the problems that this internal family management creates for Mickey.  I only wished that the film did not essentially phase her out by the third act, keeping her basically at ringside during the fights.

Dealing with the family is actually where the film both benefits the most and suffers some problems from.  The relationship between Mickey and Dickie is what one will probably come away with as the main drive of this film, but that becomes a little muddled when dealing with both Mickey’s underdog rise to fame and Dickie’s battles with crime and addiction.  All of these elements are intriguing, but the overlapping nature becomes a bit problematic when considering the film’s main focus was by its end.  The other questionable element in this film revolves around the other family members.  I have not mentioned this, but in the film, Mickey and Dickie also have five sisters (rocking some wicked hair styles and accents, by the way).  The film itself is quite humorous, despite being a drama, but scenes involving the sisters put things cartoonishly over-the-top.  I can’t say that this necessarily betrays the tone of the film, but it certainly wore me down over time.
[Addressing Dickie in prison]
Mickey:  You can’t be me.  You had a hard enough time being you, and that’s why you’re in here.
Despite these aspects, I was still entertained throughout the film, because it is a well made boxing movie.  I do not tend to be a fan of sports films (particularly Disney sports films, which this isn’t), but boxing films usually win me over.  If I had to guess why, it is because the protagonist in these sort of films are usually getting pummeled both by life and opponents, so when you finally see the hero fight back and taking away some victories, I cannot help but feel the urge to root for him.  It is basic human nature, but it works for me with these types of films.  So watching this film, I was rooting for Mickey.  I wanted to see him succeed, and regardless of whether or not he becomes a champ by the end, I was right there hoping he could.

 
The film itself is well made.  Its construction is pretty straight-forward, which I only mention, because of the nature of Russell’s visual ambitiousness and rewarding intensity that came from Three Kings.  Compared to that film, this is a much more level-headed feature, with its strength relying more from the performances.  The boxing is filmed well enough.  Combining camerawork akin to Pay Per View styled footage and a some use of slow motion.  The R-rating (mainly stemming from a lot of F-words in a wicked accent) manages to give way to having some pretty brutal fights on display.  One can certainly feel bad or caught up in the matches, as two men pummel on each other, and this film does not shy away from what goes down.  I was also a fan of the soundtrack, which has some recurring themes running throughout, as well as some nice touches on the score.
Similar to another recently well made and acted film, The Town, I found The Fighter to be a very good movie that took a familiar story, in this case - a biopic about an underdog boxer, and turned it into a film that works well as a crowd pleaser and stands strong due to its very solid performances.  Whatever basic elements this film may have to deal with are almost completely overshadowed by the strengths of these actors, the absorbing nature of the boxing matches, and the way the story is presented.  I hope audiences decide to go twelve rounds with The Fighter.
Dickie:  Mickey has a chance to do something that I never did, and he needs me and he needs you.
Charlene:  Ok, I’ll see you in his corner.

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