The Fighter (Paramount Pictures, R)

Many films have been set in decaying industrial areas, but few capture both the good and the bad of that world as well as The Fighter.

Back in the early years of this century when I was paying attention to boxing, the best action was to be found not among the heavyweights but in the junior welterweight division, where the late Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward engaged in three legendary battles televised on HBO. I’m not using the word “battle” lightly; both men were noted primarily for their tenacity and ability to take a punch and two of these three fights were honored as “fight of the year” by Ring magazine.
David O. Russell’s new film The Fighter captures the feel of boxing outside the glamour divisions and also of life in working class Lowell, Mass., where the big city of Boston, only 30 miles away, can seem as far as Karachi (to copy a line from Karl Shapiro). Boxing has often been the subject matter of many films but few have captured the good and the bad of the sport as clearly as The Fighter, which can stand up to comparison with classics such as Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull and Mark Robson’s The Harder They Fall. Similarly, many films have been set in decaying industrial areas (Lowell’s population peaked in 1910, when it was a center of textile manufacturing), but few capture both the good and the bad of that world as well as The Fighter.
Boxing is the family business for Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his brother Dickie Eklund (Christian Bale). While the latter has become a crack addict who can’t let go of his moment of glory when he knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard (or Leonard slipped, as many contend), Micky is an up-and-coming star managed by his mother Alice (Melissa Leo) and coached by Dickie. The cohesiveness and love of this family is clear, but so are their limitations—in particular, their preference for supporting each other’s delusions rather than dealing with life in all its cold, hard reality. So Alice pretends not to know that Dickie lives in a crack house, Dickie persists in the delusion that he’s going to make a comeback, and even the level-headed Micky can’t see that his promising career is being sabotaged by his brother’s erratic behavior and a series of inappropriate bouts.
It falls to an outsider, bartender Charlene Fleming (Amy Adams), to tell Micky what is obvious to anyone not drinking the Kool-Aid: He’s being used as a steppingstone to pad the record of other fighters who are on their way up. One reason Micky can’t see this is because it calls into question his mother’s ability to act as his manager. In addition, Micky’s sisters, bristling with hostility behind their big hair and bad teeth, hate the mere presence of this somewhat more sophisticated young woman (she attended college on a track scholarship) who they brand an “MTV girl” (to which Charlene rightly responds “whatever that means!”).
The film’s main story follows Micky’s attempts to be loyal to his family while also doing what is best for his career. Providing a counterpoint is Dickie’s struggle with crack; although that’s a viewpoint imposed from outside, as for most of the film, he seems entirely oblivious to his own sorry state as well as to the damage he is doing to his brother’s career. To give you an idea of how far removed from reality Dickie is, as The Fighter opens he is being filmed by an HBO crew as part of the documentary High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell, but thinks he’s starring in a documentary about his boxing comeback.
It would have been easy to turn this family into caricatures, but instead Russell, working from a screenplay by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson, found their humanity. Mark Wahlberg is solid as Micky (and he’s entirely convincing in the ring) and Amy Adams is strong as the take-no-prisoners Charlene, but the real scene stealers are Christian Bale as Dickie and Melissa Leo as Alice. The Fighter manages to avoid many pitfalls of the sports biopic and is a surprisingly funny film as well, with the humor founded in natural interactions among the characters rather than being imposed from the outside.
Hoyte van Hoytema’s location cinematography is a treat, as is costume design by Mark Bridges (Alice’s outfits make Fran Drescher’s Nanny character look like a model of restraint). Casting director Sheila Jaffe deserves special mention as well for recruiting a number of nonprofessionals and relatively unknown actors who blend perfectly with the film’s stars. The Fighter is not just a boxing movie: It’s a story about an American family, and ultimately about the American dream as well. | Sarah Boslaugh

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