Boxing is one of those sports that I love…in theory. I never watch actual fights, but all the stuff surrounding it be it the glitz, the politics, or the history I soak up like a sponge. I can tell you everything about Muhammed Ali or John L. Sullivan and give you a laundry list on why first black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson was one of the baddest motherfuckers alive, but if you’re like “hey Jon, there’s a fight on Showtime”, I’ll probably karate kick you in the face to avoid watching it. That’s why I love movies about boxing so much; the drama around it is always intense and the fights are brief and flat out exciting. I get the good stuff while avoiding most of the boring stuff.
I’ve already talked too much about boxing for a review that’s supposed to be about The Fighter and there’s one main reason why: this isn’t a movie about boxing. Sure, it’s about a fighter (…I GET THE TITLE NOW!) but this David O. Russell gem uses it as a backdrop to tell a much deeper story. The Fighter is about family, and at the forefront, it’s about the bond between brothers. And you know what? It’s fucking fantastic.
Based on a true story, The Fighter stars Mark Wahlberg as “Irish” Micky Ward, a low level boxer from Lowell, Massachusetts. We join up with him in the midst of a three fight losing streak and heading towards a fourth. Ward is managed by his mother Alice (an absolutely terrific Melissa Leo), coached by his brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale…and trust me more on him later), and under the watchful eye of his six sisters. Like the rest of the population of Lowell, Micky idolizes his older brother because of a 1978 fight in which he knocked down the legendary Sugar Ray Leonard. Unfortunately since then, Dicky has fallen victim to a life of crime and crack (which is, in fact, whack) and his addictions as well as Alice’s refusal to see it have caused Micky’s career to be nothing more than a series of punching bags for other fighters.
That is, until Charlene (Amy Adams in another great performance) enters the picture. She and Micky become romantically involved and with her help, Micky begins realizing that in order to make a go at this (he has very little time left since he’s 31 and that’s 68 in boxer years), he’s going to have to get under the watchful eye of his family. This causes a divide amongst the family, and with Dicky ending up behind bars, Micky has to fight seemingly everyone but another boxer to finally get his shot at glory.
I almost feel bad for Mark Wahlberg; I make it no secret I don’t really like the guy’s acting, but here he manages to pull a great performance that makes me almost rethink my stance. However, even though The Fighter is technically about him, it’s Christian Bale that steals the whole thing. Like with every role he takes on, Bale completely loses himself in Dicky Eklund and you forget it’s an actor playing him. He’s got the mannerisms of a crack addict down (little hints like always chewing on air) as well as the Massachusetts accent and he just runs away with the whole movie. If he’s not using “Best Supporting Actor” statues as sex toys by the end of awards season, then the world has done him a disservice.
Hell, ditto for Melissa Leo while we’re at it. She’s already been nominated in previous years (for Frozen River), but she’s amazing here and should get some love. Alice is a frightening mother; controlling, paranoid, and playing favorites. It’s no secret Dicky is her pride and joy and even though she loves Micky, she’s just really using him to get Dicky back into the spotlight despite his crack problems. But Leo also brings a fragileness to the role, and you feel for her; it’s hard for a parent to hate their kids, even when they commit crimes and fall to addiction. The scene between her and Dicky in the car is indicative of this; she starts off mad at him as she finds him in a crack den instead of helping his brother. But Dicky soon breaks her by singing to her and she completely melts and joins in. It’s heartbreaking and very real.
That’s what stunned me the most about The Fighter; it feels so fucking real. I know it’s based on a true story so it technically is, but they could have glossed it up a bit more and made it less dingy. Luckily they didn’t and it feels like a documentary in spots due to the great performances (the actors who make up Ward/Eklund family act just like a real family to the point of it being scary) and authentic presentation. The fights were especially realistic, and it’s embarrassing to admit this but I got really into them like I was watching a real contest. When Micky knocks someone down, I nearly jumped up in the theater and cheered wildly at the screen. A great movie gets you lost in the proceedings, and I was neck deep in them.
The Fighter is not only one of the better boxing movies ever made, it’s one of the best of this year hands down. Everyone involved gives a true, honest performance and instead of feeling like a movie, it feels eerily authentic. It’s got real family drama mixed in with a little Rocky-style Cinderella story and it creates a wonderful experience. Christian Bale will finally get the awards that he has deserved for a long time, and Mark Wahlberg…shit man, maybe he isn’t as bad as I thought. Ward’s rise to the top may feel a little clichéd for some people, but if you can overlook it (and trust me, it’s really easy to), you’ll find a movie that’s as powerful as an uppercut to the face. Or a left hook. Or a jab. Pick a boxing metaphor for yourself, people!