The Fighter hits you with a one-two punch. First, the astonishing performances help you bob and weave around a topic that's not for everyone. And then the touching redemption story knocks you down. It's a killer combination.
The Fighter's biggest impediment is going to be convincing non-boxing fans that it's worthwhile, the same challenge The Wrestler faced -- a topic (and title) that creates the illusion that fanaticism for the sport is a prerequisite. While The Fighter, written by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson, does little to dispel this myth for a good portion of the film, even a pugilist neophyte can follow along until the story overpowers the subject matter.
Set in the early 1990s, the film is based on the true story of Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), whose rhyming names make them sound like a pair of cartoon characters rather than blue-collar boxers from Lowell, Mass. Older brother Dicky's career peaked years earlier during a bout with Sugar Ray Leonard, and he's been up against the ropes ever since. Followed by a camera crew from HBO, Dicky crows that his comeback is imminent even though it's his baby brother Micky who is doing the heavy training in the ring.
Lording over the brothers is domineering mother Alice (Melissa Leo), who takes her role as their manager very seriously. Her determination to strap boxing gloves on her sons is akin to stage mothers forcing make-up and tiaras on their child beauty-queen daughters. Even as Micky's star continues to rise, Alice and Dicky appear delusional in their belief that Dicky will again be a champ. It's this promotion of Dicky that threatens to ruin Micky's career and his hope for real success.
Directed by David O. Russell, The Fighter, which was just nominated for several Golden Globes, rivals The Town in thick accents that could benefit from the deployment of subtitles. Like the brothers, Russell does a better job inside the ring than outside of it. His re-creation of the boxing matches uses the same techniques and styles utilized by HBO and ESPN for the actual fights. Some of the shots are beautiful, capturing the power and force behind a punch. Others, outside the ring, are more mundane, allowing the actors to shine while not overshadowing them with overly fancy techniques. Russell also mimics the footage from the HBO documentary at the beginning of the film, but quickly drops the style until the very end. While this transition is initially jarring, it ultimately provides for the biggest payoff.
In a film filled with amazing performances, the championship belt really belongs to Bale. Known for physically transforming himself for roles, Bale lost a significant amount of weight to play Dicky, appearing gaunt and giving him a prematurely aged look (though it's nothing compared to the emaciated wasting required for The Machinist). Dicky has a multitude of facets to his character, including father, washed-up boxer, addict and protective older brother. For the most outrageous components, Bale brings a frenetic edge to the part, playing Dicky like a wire strung too tight. The more tender sides of the character are only revealed in brief flashes, just enough to show that there's a heart hidden beneath the other crap. It would be easy to write off Dicky, but Bale's performance is nuanced enough to make you give him a second look.
Wahlberg, who physically transforms himself in the other direction as the buff boxer, brings a childlike wonder to Micky. He's a boy trapped in a man's body, at once aware of his power and potential and unable to get out from under his family. Wahlberg plays it a little whiny at times, coming off as a petulant younger sibling, but he imbues Micky with a tenderness that makes you just want to hug him.
Micky's girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) provides him with the confidence to put himself ahead of his family, and Adams plays the part perfectly. The couple's onscreen chemistry simmers, and she's the tough type of broad he needs in his corner. And it takes real fortitude to combat the power that Leo brings to the screen as Alice, the grizzly bear manager. Leo's performance alone is reason to see The Fighter. Whether she's acting as matchmaker, setting up fights for Micky, or teetering around in her high heels and tight jeans saying, ''Momma needs a scotch,'' Leo is mesmerizing. A barracuda one minute and a victim the next, Leo's Alice is one of the finest controlling, manipulative mothers in recent history.
One could happily go through life not knowing what it means to be a stepping stone, or any of the other Boxing 101 lessons that The Fighter provides. But doing so would mean missing out on some of the best performances this year, so it may just be time to enter the ring and go a few rounds.