Boxing movies, more than any other sports film, are dominated by clichés. A working class hero rises from downtrodden circumstances to become the underdog contender in a championship match. Along the way they endure economic hardship, broken dreams, relationship woes, and familial pressure. David O’Russell’s The Fighter is just that story. But The Fighter transcends the clichés that define its essence. Not necessarily through its style (the fight scenes are less than memorable) but in its characters and performances.
Mark Wahlberg, in his third pairing with O’Russell, is Micky Ward, a down-and-out boxer from Lowell, MA. It’s the early 1990s, before Ward became known for his trio of fights with Arturo Gatti.
Ward’s career is dictated by the demands of his domineering family. His trainer is his older half-brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), a local legend who tells anyone within ear shot about that time he beat Sugar Ray Leonard. The brothers are the focus on an HBO documentary chronicling Dicky’s crack addiction. Dicky believes that the documentary is about his grand comeback; everyone else knows it is really about his deteriorating life.
Alice (Melissa Leo, in yet another merciless, chameleon-like performance) disastrously manages her son’s career, putting Micky in impossible matches where the need for money, not glory, wins out. One of these matches pushes Mickey to quit boxing. When Micky meets the tough-talking Charlene (Amy Adams), his life changes. She instantly recognizes the reason for his troubles – his family. If Micky wants one last shot to be the “pride of Lowell,” he needs to leave his family behind.
Charlene’s involvement pits her against the overbearing female forces in the Eklund/Ward clan. Mickey’s seven sisters are a working class, highly comical, hair-sprayed to the max, Greek chorus; Alice is their ringleader. They know what Micky needs; not this somewhat college-educated, MTV girl. They know that Micky, deep down, does need Dicky.
For his part, Dicky spends a majority in the film in jail, grappling with his life, his decisions, and his addiction. He emerges from jail a better man, ready to make amends and recommit to Micky’s fight. The brothers, in the end, can’t win without each other.
Bale’s performance is so good, so precise. This is not Batman. This is not the Terminator. Bale throws himself into this lanky, goofy character but not in a manner that is sheer mimicry. It is the athleticism of powerhouse screen acting.
And Leo makes the unflattering Alice (she’s sometimes just as bad as a prototypical stage mom) a force to be reckoned with. Leo is one of best character actresses working in Hollywood. Her performance in The Fighter inches up on you that by the time you realize you’ve been witnessing something that is subtly marvelous, the film is over. Watching Leo and Adams, delivering yet another fine supporting performance, exchange “pleasantries” and even fists is better than any of Micky’s fights.
In the end, it is Wahlberg who lags behind this trio of exemplary supporting performances. It is not because Wahlberg lacks the skill. Maybe because everyone else is a richer character. Micky Ward might have championed in real life, but in The Fighter it is the forces behind him that shine the most.