Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg in the Oscar nominated The Fighter (2010)
Riding on a wave of critical plaudits from US critics The Fighter arrives on UK shores with two Golden Globe wins, 3 BAFTA and 7 Academy Award nominations. Wahlberg had been prepping the film as a producer and training as a boxer for four years before unlikely director David O. Russell (Spanking The Monkey, 1994) came onboard, and in the shadow of boxing movies such as Rocky (John G. Avildsen, 1976) and Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980), it's only right to expect the absolute best from this biopic. Unfortunately, as was perhaps inevitable, it fails to deliver on the promised level, combining over-familiar dysfunctional family drama with an unsuccessful sports movie, landing on an uncomfortable middle ground that never finds quite the right momentum. It is, however, held together by impressive direction and some truly stunning performances...
The films biggest plus is also its flaw. Wahlberg had been pushing this project as producer for four years before O. Russell came onboard to direct - it was his dream to tell the story of Micky Ward, the boxer who struggled to go pro in the mid 1980s. Ironic then that he is the least interesting aspect of the movie and actually plays second fiddle to the story of step-brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale). There's a line in The Fighter where barmaid Charlene (Amy Adams) calls Micky a "stepping stone." In the context of the movie she's wrong, as Micky is a born fighter with natural talent and heart. But in the context of the movie she's spot-on. Micky's story is the narrative drive, it's his arc that we follow to the end, but he's frequently stepped on by Dicky who overpowers the screen and provides the more interesting redemption story; this is the small-town self destruction movie, and in that sense it works brilliantly. Which isn't to say that Whalberg is bad, or that his storyline doesn't work. Indeed, Wahlberg is terrific (where's his Oscar nom?) and without him the story of Dicky couldn't be told, because it's the dynamic between the brothers and how they keep failing for each other, living in a cycle of regret, that forms the core of what The Fighter is about. Scenes of Micky on his own beaten and bruised are affecting, but those punches are never really felt in the ring because where The Fighter ultimately fails is as a sports movie. There are only three main fights in the film, shot on genuine HBO cameras and using the real commentary tapes from Micky's fights. This lends them an ultra-realism unlike any boxing movie I've seen before, but it also means they're quite distinctly un-cinematic and lack any true tension. O. Russell shoots them in a remarkably controlled fashion but they lack the violent energy really need. The biopic The Fighter kept reminding me of was The Hurricane (Norman Jewison, 1999), which had some kinetic boxing scenes, and was also a moving prison drama - of course that was also a period movie, and dealt heavily with the justice system and racial politics. But it hit the balance being strived for here.
So lets flip the coin. Christian Bale is absolutely astonishing here and it's his performance that makes the film a must-see. He's always been a great actor, from American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000) to Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog, 2006), but he's really on fire here. Of course the first thing you notice is the weight loss, but he's done that before. It's really the psychological link he's made with his character that's key. He's so completely in the character that you sometimes forget you're watching an actor. He owns the screen, from his early energetic scenes on the streets to his stretch in prison and ultimate redemption by bringing Micky victory. For the first half of the film a HBO documentary crew are filming Dicky for a show about crack addiction, but he thinks they're making a show about his comeback. He's been living on a pipe-dream for so long that when he finally accepts his past it's incredibly moving. When Micky is in his final fight, half dead, Dicky just stares him down. "This is your chance. I had mine and I blew it. You don't have to. You're Micky Ward." Clichéd? Probably, but it actually tugged my heartstrings just typing that sentence. Unfortunately Dicky is let down in scenes with his mother and sisters. The big selling point for O. Russell has been the fact that Micky has these seven sisters, and they provide a dynamic he hadn't seen in a boxing biopic before. The problem is that none of them are rounded characters, they perhaps have one line each and mostly just row and act like rowdy caricatures. Melissa Leo isn't much better in her broad performance of a dominant mother and the films worst scene comes when she leads her daughters to the house of Charlene to give Micky an ultimatum, ending in a cringe-inducing catfight. It's a horrible scene and the dynamic falls flat because it's A) not developed, and B) given minimal screen-time. In fact the film would have been much better without them.
The two real stars of the film are Amy Adams and David O. Russell. Adams is great in everything she does and here holds her own against two very strong lead performances. She has the most conventional role but injects it with humanity and a grounded strength, making her sympathetic and likable. She saves every scene she's in just by being there. Then there's O. Russell, who has really matured as a filmmaker and developed his eye with DoP Hoyte Van Hoytema. The film looks impressively downbeat and broken, like the town it represents - shot in greys and browns, it's a murky back-street of crack-houses and tired ambitions, filled with souls who try so desperately to keep each other together, but just go the wrong way about it. If the film has heart, it's because of the sense of tightly-knit community and camaraderie Russell creates with his smooth direction, which is more adventurous than his norm - not show-offy, but controlled at every turn. I've always liked him, but I never knew he was this good.
There's no score to speak of, just an unfocused rock soundtrack - and the closest the film comes to musical montage feels pretty stale. I feel like I'm painting The Fighter as a bad film, but that's not the case. It's got huge flaws even outside of being overlong and predictable - namely its uneven balancing of story and the portrayal of the rowdy sisters, who threaten to derail the whole thing at every turn. But the direction and photography are top-notch (as is the editing, in fact), and the three central performances - Bale, Wahlberg, Adams - are terrific. It could have been so much more, but it is what it is - a solid been-there-done-that fight flick with ambition and heart, that falls just a little short of greatness. A stepping stone then.