The Fighter is perfect Oscar bait. Conforming to everything the Academy loves in its movies, triumph over adversity, transformative, showy performances, and an uplifting, ‘life affirming’ conclusion, it’s little surprise that David O Russell’s gritty boxing drama has notched up no fewer than seven nominations.
And yet, like last year’s The American, The Fighter is filmed and acted with enough brio and conviction to overcome its predictable, formulaic plot, and as the music pounds and the punches fly, it’s impossible not to get drawn in to this brash, aggressive drama. It’s shot with a grimy, semi-realistic look that’s typical of Russell, but the grime is a gossamer thin covering on what is an unashamedly feelgood movie.
Based on a true story, The Fighter stars Mark Wahlberg as Micky ‘Irish’ Ward, a 30-something Irish American boxer whose career is on the ropes. His half-brother, Dicky (Christian Bale), is nominally his trainer, but spends much of his time in a crack den, and following a string of badly chosen fights, Micky’s chances of becoming a world champion appear to be slipping away.
Micky’s fortunes begin to change when he meets headstrong barmaid, Charlene (Amy Adams). Encouraged to stand up to both Dicky and their domineering mother, Alice, Micky makes a redoubled attempt to win the title he’s been dreaming of.
The Fighter is notable for the strength of its lead performances, and Bale’s in particular. Playing a washed-up, drug addicted ex-boxer, he rambles and seethes his way through the movie, all rotting teeth and thinning hair. It’s a showy, manic performance rendered all the more startling by his gaunt appearance. This is Bale in a similar starvation mode he employed for his unforgettable turn in The Machinist. And while it’s a little over the top, it’s right for the film, and certainly one of his most memorable roles in years.
Bale is matched by Melissa Yeo, the seething matriarch who runs her family’s affairs like a mafia don with big hair. She plots and snarls like Lady Macbeth with rabies, and she’s brilliant. The Supporting Actress Oscar nod is entirely deserved.
Wahlberg, perhaps sensing these heavyweights crowding the screen from both sides, is the film’s quiet centre. Leaning more to the quiet, introspective character of Rocky Balboa than the Jake LaMotta of Raging Bull, his turn as Micky is quietly effective, lending a vulnerable edge to his character that makes his horrendous bad luck all the more poignant.
The Fighter‘s boxing matches are effectively shot and staged, and the sound design brings home every retina-detaching punch, though there’s little of the brutality of Raging Bull here. You could argue the film doesn’t need it. This is a film about chasing dreams and fulfilling ambitions, not a Death In The Afternoon-style exploration of brutality, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
As the bell rings for the final, decisive fight, and Micky steps into the ring, you realise just how great it is to see a Rocky-style boxing movie on the big screen again.
It’s interesting, in fact, that Russell makes no attempt to veil his debt to John G Alvidsen’s movie. There are adrenaline soaked training sequences, montages of fights set to pounding rock music, a jump rope scene where Wahlberg skips really fast and then chucks his rope on the floor, while the climactic fight even concludes with a freeze frame.
The Fighter, therefore, is derivative, formulaic and emotionally manipulative. That it still manages to be an absorbing, exciting and surprisingly funny movie (there’s a running gag which involves Bale throwing himself out of a first floor window that is darkly comic) is a testament to its uniformly excellent acting, direction and script.
Wahlberg’s performance as Ward isn’t as enduringly memorable as Stallone’s hangdog, drawling turn as Rocky Balboa, and as a biopic, Russell’s film lacks the complexity of Raging Bull. But taken as a feelgood piece of cinema, The Fighter is inarguably the best boxing movie of the last 25 years.
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