The Fighter review

David O Russell takes on the story of boxer Micky Ward, and comes up with one of the best films of the year. Here's our review of The Fighter...

‘Irish’ Micky Ward was one of the hardest men in the boxing game during his time in the squared circle. He never backed down from a fight, and what he lacked in speed, quickness, and defense he made up for with an ability to take punishment, a drive to win, and a liver-quivering left hook to the body.

This unique concoction of drive and gluttony for punishment comes, no doubt, from his family life, which is equal parts colorful and hard-luck. This tale, of a man’s ability to transcend family problems and rise to great heights in his chosen profession is the centerpiece of David O Russell’s star-studded new sports drama, The Fighter.

It’s not a new story, by any means. A fighter comes from a humble background and somehow scraps his way to success. It’s a story as old as that of boxing itself, with a new humble man becoming the people’s champion with every generation.

However, Micky Ward’s story is exceptional because it has played out in front of the world, thanks to the new media age in which we live. Ward’s story is familiar to boxing fans, but not to the public at large. This movie should change that. (I’d like to think that in a world post-The Blind Side, a sports movie doesn’t have to have a limited audience.)

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That said, one of the flaws of The Fighter is one that was held by The Blind Side, too, another sports film about a talent overcoming his own upbringing and familial demons.

Micky Ward, like Michael Oher, is a bit of a cypher. Ward, being a middle child, was undoubtedly overlooked in favor of his many sisters and flamboyant older brother Dickey. This comes through in the film, with the fairly soft-spoken and normal Ward being outshined by his girlfriend and incredibly insane family. I’d imagine this is a fairly accurate portrait of Ward, who always talked very little and punched very hard during his boxing career.

That’s unfortunate for Mark Wahlberg, playing Ward, who does acquit himself very well when he gets his moments. It’s wonderful for the movie’s rich supporting cast, including a stellar Christian Bale, magnificent Amy Adams, and impressively loving-yet-loathsome Melissa Leo.

Of the many impressive performances in the film, and it’s well-acted from top to bottom, Leo’s take on Alice Ward is staggeringly good. She’s the mother (or mother-in-law) from hell, all cigarettes and manipulation, but done for your own good of course. It’s uncomfortable at points, because it’s so squirmingly guilt-inducing. It oozes off the screen with every Marlboro sigh, and snuffly threatened tear. Yes, she’s a horrible person, but she thinks that she’s doing the best for her boy Micky. She’s probably the villain, but only by default. It’s not as though she’s acting out of malice, she just doesn’t know better.

Perhaps the most important character in The Fighter is Christian Bale’s Dicky Eklund, rather than the movie’s subject. Dicky is Ward’s older half-brother, mentor, and albatross all at once. Dicky is a phenomenal mind and knows boxing better than anything else, except for where to score crack. Yes, Dicky was a crack addict, and the real-life Dicky was the subject of the amazing HBO documentary High On Crack Street.

Bale not only completely nails Eklund’s flamboyantly entertaining personality, he also does a great crack addict. Bale’s energy, his constant movement, his fast-talking, his expressions and sniffing… Bale’s doing some wonderful physical acting with this role, which is one of his strongest traits as an actor, but taken to another level here. He’s incredible as Dicky, who is an incredible character in his own right. After his recent missteps, it’s refreshing to see that Bale the actor is still capable of a captivating, moving performance.

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Of crucial importance in a movie like this is the look. I remember Micky Ward’s fight versus Shea Neary, and everything from the movie fight looked familiar. Apparently, they hired the HBO crews and used 90s-era cameras to get the look of the fight right, and they did an incredible job.

I was worried the entire time about the quality of Mark Wahlberg’s left hook, and while it’s not nearly as good as Ward’s real-life punch, it’s good enough for me not to complain about it. The boxing action is really well-done, which can be tough for a movie to film. David O. Russell’s decision to turn most of that over to the experts was a great idea. They even recycle a lot of Harold Lederman and Jim Lampley’s commentary from Ward’s actual televised matches, which thrilled me because several of the lines I remember vividly from the fights were reused in the movie.

Still, Russell’s portions of the film are handled with his particularly deft style, without the trickery he used in Three Kings. The movie runs just under two hours (115 minutes), but I didn’t notice the runtime while I was watching it. Russell shoots the movie very well, using Ward’s seven sisters as a combination peanut gallery/Greek chorus.

The blocking of the family scenes is a stand-out of a very well-constructed movie. Nothing lingers too long, and the head/body, head/body fighting style that made Ward is echoed in Russell’s fighting/family, fighting/family shooting style.

The script is also pretty evenly balanced between boxing and family drama. The film’s writers, Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson, mine Ward’s real-life story for movie drama. There are some inconsistencies with reality, like the elevation of the WBU titles to major importance and a .com address on the ring, but aside from that, there’s nothing to complain about.

They really nail Dicky Eklund’s character. and the war for Mickey’s career, between his well-meaning girlfriend Charlene and diligent trainer Mickey O’Keefe (playing himself), along with his well-meaning(ish) mother Alice and talented/troubled tactician Dicky, is skillfully scripted. Nobody’s entirely good or entirely bad. Even the horrible Alice isn’t a bad person, just not, ahem, the most deft handler of people (or, perhaps, too deft at handling people).

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I have to admit to being biased. I’ve loved Micky Ward since the first time I saw him fight on television. He had so much heart, so much will to win, and the most determination to make the most of every fight of any fighter I’ve ever watched. There was never a Micky Ward fight where he gave up: he might get beaten, but he wasn’t going to quit and when he threw that left hook from hell, it hurt his opponents so much that I got sympathy pains.If I could learn to throw any punch, it’d be that one left hook to the body.

As a fellow Irish-American, Micky became my fighter, my guy. From Micky I learned to love Arturo Gatti, the Italian version of Micky Ward. From those two guys, I became a life-long boxing fan. Since this movie tells Micky’s story in a fairly accurate way (aside from leaving out some of Dicky’s recent brushes with the law that may or may not have happened since filming wrapped), I’m a fan of it, too.

Even if you’re not a boxing fan, The Fighter should be on your list of things to see. It’s a movie that transcends the limited audience of the sport it covers thanks to a universal story brought to life by some of the best actors working right now. It’s a movie about a fighter that’s almost as good as the fighter himself.

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5 out of 5