Friday, July 19, 2024

“THE FIGHTER”

THE STORY – For Micky Ward, boxing is a family affair. His tough-as-nails mother is his manager. His half-brother, Dicky, once a promising boxer himself, is his very unreliable trainer. Despite Micky’s hard work, he is losing, and when the latest fight nearly kills him, he follows his girlfriend’s advice and splits from the family. Then Micky becomes a contender for the world title, and he — and his family — earns a shot at redemption.

THE CAST – Mark Wahlberg, Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Melissa Leo, Jack McGee & Frank Renzulli

THE TEAM – David O. Russell (Director), Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson (Writers)

THE RUNNING TIME – 116 Minutes


Boxing is the most cinematic of all sports. There’s an existential quality to watching a character stand in a ring and exercise their demons through physical combat. It’s easy to bring one’s own demons into the ring while watching. The flip side of this dramatic potential, of course, is that anybody attempting a boxing film of their own has to contend with the legacy of classics like “Body and Soul” (1947), “Raging Bull” (1980), and “Rocky” (1976). It’s challenging to carve out a distinct approach to the subgenre without emulating one of these films. “The Fighter” (2010) is the rare boxing drama that manages to do it, providing a unique take on the boxing subgenre that intrigues and interests its targeted audience.

“The Fighter” details the career of real-life boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg). Micky struggled to get out from the shadow of his brother, Dicky (Christian Bale), and his numerous losses in the ring led to him stepping away. He’s urged by his girlfriend, Charlene Fleming (Amy Adams), to get a fresh start independent of his family, but when an opportunity to win the world title arises, Micky has to juggle his love life and his family while determining if he still has what it takes to compete. The film’s title, “The Fighter,” not only refers to Micky’s profession but also to his resilience and determination in the face of adversity. Anybody who’s seen a film before knows that Micky gets back in the ring. It’s right there in the title. It’s ultimately the execution of the central conflict that makes “The Fighter” such a rewarding drama.

David O. Russell’s reputation is at an all-time low at the moment, and understandably so, but there was a period in the early 2010s where the director was nailing one ensemble genre piece after another. He’d sharpened his teeth with offbeat films like “Three Kings” (1999) and “I Heart Huckabees” (2004), but “The Fighter” represented a reinvention of sorts in terms of style and intent. Russell’s eccentricities and interest in characters who are their own worst enemies are still present, but they are packaged in a conventional, Oscar-friendly drama. Tellingly, the boxing scenes are not what everybody talks about when referring to “The Fighter.” The training montage is standard, and the two boxing matches are solidly executed (I like how they emulate the look and feel of HBO coverage during the period), yet the film’s heart lies outside the ring.

There are upsides and downsides to Russell’s approach. On the one hand, he pulls stellar performances out of his cast, with Christian Bale’s Dicky and Melissa Leo’s Alice (the Ward matriarch) leading the way. On the other hand, the film’s focus on the Ward family dynamics can sometimes overshadow the boxing aspect, which might disappoint some viewers expecting more action. Bale gives one of his signature performances as a contender who squandered his career on drugs and has to deal with the complicated fact that his little brother can go further than he ever could. The tortured qualities of Dicky Ward shine through whenever he’s onscreen, and Bale’s ability to convey moments of physical prowess despite his emaciated appearance is nothing short of astonishing. The scene in which he watches himself on television and realizes what he’s become is emotionally devastating, regardless of how often one sees it.

Melissa Leo shares Bale’s propensity for stealing scenes in “The Fighter.” The actress plays an opportunistic mother who wants to get her family back in the spotlight but struggles to accept the fact that Micky, and not the troubled Dicky, is the Ward meal ticket. The sparring scene, in which Alice rushes to make sure Dicky is alright and gets scolded by Micky for ignoring him, is a microcosm of what makes “The Fighter” work as a whole. There’s trash talk, there’s vulnerability when a spent Micky says, “I thought you were my mother too,” and then the moment where Leo’s character straightens up, looks at her son, and reckons with her behavior. Its performances like this, which toggle between nuanced and scenery-chewing, keep “The Fighter” compelling for much of its runtime. Bale and Leo took home Oscars for Best Supporting Actor and Actress, respectively, and deservedly so.

Amy Adams brings similar magnetism to the role of Charlene. There’s a world in which the girlfriend of the main character is just that, the girlfriend, but Adams really sinks her teeth into the material and delivers a performance that toggles between vulnerability and toughness. She convincingly throws hands with the Ward sisters, but when Micky’s brother comes around and coerces her into supporting his title shot, Adams’ expressive green eyes single-handedly steal attention away from Bale. “The Fighter” is a film overflowing with Oscar reel moments, and it’s a testament to the screenplay by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson that they’re arranged in such a way that never feels rote.

As you’ll notice, however, the discussion of “The Fighter,” in this review and several others, heaps praise on everyone but the titular fighter. Mark Wahlberg is a capable and excellent actor under the right circumstances, but it’s the humble opinion of this writer that he gets blown off the screen at every turn. Wahlberg struggles to match the wiley unpredictability of Bale, the hard-bitten opportunism of Leo, or the spitfire support of Adams, who consequently winds up being the least engaging presence on the screen. Part of it is performance. Wahlberg is the least “transformed” actor here, which means he’s playing a variation on his established persona. The other part is the writing. By handing so much of the film’s conflict off to the likes of Dicky, Alice, and Charlene, the screenplay turns Micky Ward into a narrative device rather than a three-dimensional character. He’s stuck between the desires of the stronger personalities around him, which makes it difficult to ascertain who he is or what truly makes him tick. In giving the blandest characterization to the main character, “The Fighter” struggles to land the emotional punch it aims for when the final bell rings and Micky wins the title.

“The Fighter” is not the best film for any of the major talents involved, but it’s an excellent showcase for their talents. Bale, Leo, and Adams are exceptional, and Russell’s ability to imbue a conventional underdog premise with his high-strung eccentricities gives the film a unique texture. The film falls short in the writing, especially regarding Micky Ward, but that doesn’t keep it from being one of the best boxing films of the 21st century.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Russell's emphasis on messy human dynamics leads to revelatory scenes, and he pulls staggeringly good performances from his supporting cast.

THE BAD - The boxing scenes pale in comparison to those outside the ring, and the broad characterization of Micky Ward makes him the least compelling character in his own story.

THE OSCARS - Best Supporting Actress & Best Supporting Actor (Won), Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay & Best Film Editing (Nominated)

THE FINAL SCORE - 8/10

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Danilo Castro
Danilo Castro
Music lover. Writer for Screen Rant, Noir Foundation, Classic Movie Hub & Little White Lies.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Russell's emphasis on messy human dynamics leads to revelatory scenes, and he pulls staggeringly good performances from his supporting cast.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>The boxing scenes pale in comparison to those outside the ring, and the broad characterization of Micky Ward makes him the least compelling character in his own story.<br><br> <b>THE OSCARS - </b><a href="/oscar-predictions-best-supporting-actress/">Best Supporting Actress</a> & <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-supporting-actor/">Best Supporting Actor</a> (Won), <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-picture/">Best Picture</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-director/">Best Director</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-supporting-actress/">Best Supporting Actress</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-original-screenplay/">Best Original Screenplay</a> & <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-film-editing/">Best Film Editing</a> (Nominated)<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>8/10<br><br>"THE FIGHTER"