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Brotherly love takes a standing eight-count in The Fighter, then rallies for a knockout as two troubled brothers find a way to work together to make boxing history.
This true story about light welterweight boxer and perennial underdog “Irish” Micky Ward makes for less of a sports movie than a domestic drama about blue-collar brothers struggling to stay a family while the forces of drug addiction and parental ambition tear them apart.
While the film may have its Rocky-like moments, it reminds you more of the plays and films of the 1950s, which focused on tough realities faced by working-class people.
The film has been a pet project for its producer-star Mark Wahlberg. You can certainly see what stirred his passion in the against-all-odds physical and emotional journey of Micky Ward. It’s an epic tale told with low-key, measured tones. But a host of writers and Wahlberg’s Three Kings director David O. Russell never quite make the case that his story merits a major studio movie.
There is something a little too cartoonish about Micky’s completely impossible family and also something a little too short-sighted in a protagonist who can’t see the obvious — that his family, and not other fighters, is what stands in his way as a boxer. Paramount will be pushing The Fighter in a number of awards categories when it opens December 10.
If Wahlberg hits the PA trail and critics respond, the film stands a chance for moderate box office and a nom or two. But the feeling persists that this is one that got away, that the film Wahlberg envisioned is not the film that ultimately got made. A central conflict never comes into clear focus. There’s a lot going on in the early scenes, all set in the characters’ hometown of Lowell, Masachusetts.
Wahlberg’s Micky, who is working on a road paving crew, is aiming to return to boxing after a hiatus brought about by a string of defeats. His older half-brother, Dickie Eklund (Christian Bale), himself a former boxer who once fought Sugar Ray Leonard and therefore Micky’s childhood hero, is his trainer. Only Dickie spends most of his time in a crack house. A documentary film crew follows Dickie around making a film about his “comeback” as the brothers’ fiercely possessive mother, Alice (Melissa Leo in a startlingly strident performance), arranges fights that don’t improve Micky’s career ambitions one bit.
Meanwhile, Micky spots an attractive bartender, college dropout Charlene (Amy Adams), and a relationship sputters to life. It soon is clear enough that Charlene is the only character in the film who is not delusional. Dickie is no trainer but a crack-head, and the documentary crew is actually making an HBO movie about addiction, not sports comebacks. Alice has no business managing her son’s career but the son needs his new girlfriend to set him straight about his family. Dicke helps Charlene’s cause when he gets busted and sent to prison. The mom has had nine kids and all the rest are lay-about sisters, who smoke, watch TV and make snide remarks about Charlene. Whatever the actual reality of the Ward/Eklund family, the portrayal here is so exaggerated that it seems at times more like a spoof of a Sundance dysfunctional-family film.
What’s not clear is why Micky never spots any of this dysfunction. Perhaps he does yet worries about losing his hero and his mom at the same time. However, Charlene gives him the backbone to challenge both of them so for a while his career takes off. Yet when Dickie returns from prison and he and mom want to get back on Micky’s boxing team, he dithers once more. Wahlberg’s Micky is always levelheaded. He understands his attributes and drawbacks as a fighter. He wins fights through a strategy: He is willing to absorb brutal punishment in the ring until he can seize the opportunity to land a devastating body blow.
Similarly, in life, Micky absorbs his family’s best shots until he can find a way to bring them back into his inner circle. He’s a family guy, for sure. The script by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson (from a story by Tamasy, Johnson and Keith Dorrington) sees Micky as unnervingly patient. His greatest fear is of failure. He wants to live up to an image Dickie put in his mind when he was a kid, an impression so strong that he doesn’t realize that it disintegrated long ago.Meanwhile Dickie would probably be a clown even if he weren’t stoned. He has an ex-fighter’s loose limbs and rubbery body. He likes to make faces and joke around with people. Whether intended or not, his speech pattern is that of a man whose brain has been rattled once too often inside his head.
The real enigma here though is Alice. What makes her tick? Leo plays her with a pinched, determined face and overly styled hair, a woman missing the gene for maternal instincts. Her “love” for her two boys depends on how much they believe mother knows best. Somewhere along the line, the movie pretty much gives up trying to understand her so she is relegated to ringside seats rooting for Micky.
The most luminous personality in the film belongs to Adams’ Charlene. She too is a woman who takes charge but she does it through strength of character and love. Her bad-girl days are behind her so she understands a thing or two about comebacks: They only work if you see no other option.
The boxing sequences get bunched toward the end. Russell deliberately shoots them in brightly lit video that makes it look like you’re watching television. He has broadcasters and ringsiders comment on the fights, but seldom takes you close enough to hear what Dickie might be saying to Micky. You’re outside the ring, not inside. So like much of this film, the viewer is turned into an observer. You never feel close enough to the action, either in the ring or in the kitchens, living rooms and tough streets where the story takes place. The characters engage you up to a point but never really pull you in.
Venue: AFI Fest (Paramount Pictures)
Paramount Pictures and Relativity Media in association with the Weinstein Co. present a Relativity Media/Mandeville Films/Closest to the Hold production
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, Mickey O’Keefe, Jack McGee, Melissa McMeekin
Director: David O. Russell
Screenwriters: Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson
Story by: Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson, Keith Dorrington
Producers: David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman, Mark Wahlberg, Ryan Kavanaugh, Paul Tamasy, Dorothy Aufiero
Executive producers: Darren Aronofsky, Tucker Tooley, Harvey Weinstein, Bob Weinstein, Eric Johnson, Keith Dorrington, Leslie Varrelman
Director of photography: Hoyte Van Hoytema
Production designer: Judy Becker
Music: Michael Brook
Costume designer: Mark Bridges
Editor: Pamela Martin
Not rated, 115 minutes
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