The Fighter tells the true story of brothers Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale); the former is a down-and-out boxer with a chance at a title shot, and the latter is his drug-addled trainer eager to make good. A true story it may be, but that synopsis screams ‘sports-movie-cliché’. Thankfully, director David O. Russell has no intention of fulfilling our expectations of what a boxing movie should be. There’s no swelling score, saccharine sheen, or howling, pious performances. The Fighter doesn’t take place in “movie land”, where the ‘aw shucks’ citizens are quaint, supportive and all-knowing. The setting – Lowell, Massachusetts circa 1993 – is alive, set to the strains of a dynamic early-90s soundtrack. Our hero is soft-spoken, and seemingly incapable of making an inspiring speech. The supporting characters are abrasive, and full of bad advice. It’s a film that takes place in a real setting, has real characters, and doesn’t delude itself about the reality of certain situations. And it’s a damn shame that “authenticity” alone is what sets apart good movies from the bad.
Russell has rediscovered what it means to make an inspirational film. With The Fighter he returns the genre to its grimy roots, just as he did with his Gulf War masterpiece Three Kings, in which he reminded viewers (in graphic detail) that people die in battle and it ain’t no honourable thing. The Fighter is inspirational in the same way the original Rocky was inspirational; when you start from the bottom, the smallest victories feel like the biggest. Russell and screenwriters Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson don’t need to invent giant fist-pumping moments to touch us.
The film battles against the worst movie spoiler of all – history, and it’s ever reliable information transportation device, Wikipedia – and there’s nothing we can do about that, but allow me to offer a brief plot synopsis. Micky Ward is what they call at “stepping stone”; an easy-to-beat opponent real contenders use to make their way to the top of the charts, or ladder, or whatever they use to rank boxers (I’m a film critic; as if I watch sports!). Understandably, his self-esteem is shot. It doesn’t help that his mother/manager Alice (Melissa Leo, having a little too much fun) quite clearly favours her other son Dicky. Sure, he’s a failed fighter himself, plus a junkie to boot, but hot damn he’s charismatic (and Bale, for the first time in a long time, is indeed brimming with charisma). Offered the opportunity to make some real money and fight some real fights, Micky – spurred on by spunky girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) – defies his family and goes for a title shot. But can he ever really leave behind Alice, Dicky, his seven sisters (seven!) and three decades of shame and failure? “I’ve been to Lowell, but I’ve never been to me…”
Bale and Leo give the showiest performances, and they’re indeed great, but it’s a shame they’ll likely dominate the award season. The doe-eyed Wahlberg has been readying his wounded soul for some time now, and although he prematurely revealed it in The Lovely Bones (to hilarious effect!), it is now set to stun. He brings unparalleled athleticism to the fight scenes, and tenderness to the rest. It’s still the somewhat-simple-seeming Wahlberg in action here; the one we’ve often dismissed. Although the film is filled with memorable performances from vibrant character actors (a polite way to say scene-chewers), he dares to subvert the idea of a “leading man” by playing one who cannot survive without those around him. Although Dicky and Charlene and Alice carry Micky, it is Wahlberg who carries this cast.
David O. Russell doesn’t try any unusual camera tricks that have come to be a trademark of his. After a number of on-set outbursts and disagreements over the course of his short career, it seemed like the talented filmmaker had been in “director jail”. The Fighter should have been his ‘getting-back-on-the-wagon’ flick; a conventional studio film that he could churn out on time and under budget. And to a degree it is. But it’s also much more; he brings heart, humour and humanity to The Fighter, and can always be relied on to bring brutality and truth to a medium where it is sadly a rarer and rarer occurrence.
The Fighter arrives in Australian cinemas January 20, 2011.