The Fighter

Arriving in cinemas laden with Oscar nominations, David O. Russell’s The Fighter is an old-fashioned, unashamedly crowd-pleasing boxing story, flawlessly acted and brilliantly directed, that tells the true story of welterweight “Irish” Micky Ward’s unlikely journey to a world championship belt.

Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) once went ten rounds with Sugar Ray Leonard, briefly knocking him down, and has been regaling the neighbourhood with the story for years. By the time the story begins Dicky, “The Pride of Lowell”, has descended to drug addiction, spending most of his days cowering in an abandoned house, sucking on a pipe. He’s still recalling his glory days, but this time it’s to a documentary film crew who are following him around. Dicky has been training his younger brother Micky (Mark Wahlberg) for years, getting him ready for local undercard bouts and dreaming of a crack at a championship.

Micky’s domineering mother Alice (Melissa Leo) is also his manager, setting up his fights and creaming a percentage from his meagre winnings. When his two advisors allow him to take a beating from a fighter who outweighs him by 20 pounds, Micky starts to face facts: he’s got a powerful left hook but no stamina. Without professional training he will never win anything. And he has got to get as far away from his family as possible. Then, along comes Micky’s new girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams), the no-nonsense bartender from the local tavern, to act as a buffer between the fighter and his dysfunctional family, restore his confidence and get him back in the ring.

If there was an Oscar for Originality, The Fighter wouldn't win it; the magic of this story is all in the telling. Russell, working with four credited screenwriters, constructs the film in part as a fake documentary, employing the device of having the characters followed around by a team of filmmakers and talking to camera but using the resultant footage in a particularly inventive and dramatically satisfying way. The Fighter has bags of style but is never showy, carefully weaving strands of fact and fiction while retaining a tough, pacy core of storytelling.

Bale’s performance is the standout in an excellent cast, brilliantly capturing Dicky’s jerky physicality, the last few dregs of his boxing fitness topped up with stimulant drugs. His appearance ebbs and flows throughout the story, at times appearing skeletal to the point of disappearing, his eyes little more than glinting marbles. Bale is superb but his efforts are matched by Leo as the Massachusetts Lady Macbeth, elbowing her way to the best position, supported by her shrieking chorus of her seven cauldron-stirring daughters. Wahlberg might be the supposed hero but Mickey is very much a silent presence in his own story. Bullied by his mother and despairing of his feckless brother, Mickey only wants enough peace and quiet to train and box. Wahlberg smartly understates his performance, anchoring the chaos boiling around him with shrugged shoulders and stoical grins.

Even before a youtube video of him screaming at Lily Tomlin on the set of I Heart Huckabees emerged, Russell had developed a reputation for being a difficult director. The critical and commercial failure of that film (released in 2004 and Russell’s last) didn’t help his cause, making The Fighter is as much a triumphant comeback for its battered director as it is for Irish Micky.

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