The less you know about welterweight “Irish” Micky Ward’s story before seeing The Fighter, the better. But even if his trials, tribulations, and triumphs are familiar, you won’t be bored by the way director David O. Russell (Three Kings) and his dynamite cast tell the tale. It’s easy to say, when it’s over, that The Fighter falls into a familiar rousing-sports-movie formula. But if you are blissfully ignorant of the true story, you likely won’t know which way this psychologically complex family saga is heading. The suspense isn’t just about who’s going to win the big fight, but who’s going to emerge from Ward’s big, fierce jungle of a family with their lives intact. Unlike most boxing movies, the cruelest blows in The Fighter are internal.
Micky (Mark Wahlberg) has lost three fights in a row when we pick up his story in 1993 in his blue-collar Lowell, Mass., hometown. His trainer is his older half-brother, Dicky Ecklund (Christian Bale), whose moment of glory was having once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard. Micky is fiercely loyal to his brother, and it’s wrecking his career. Hollow-cheeked, motormouthed, and out of control, Dicky is a charismatic crack addict whose addiction is being documented by an HBO film crew. Bale, who may be the scariest actor in the business, is poisonously good here.
Dicky isn’t the only scary family member: there’s Alice (Melissa Leo), the boys’ mom and manager, a brassy, chain-smoking blonde whose denial about her son’s crack habit is as ferocious as her antipathy to Micky’s new girlfriend, the smart and tough barmaid Charlene (a terrific Amy Adams), the only one strong enough to stand up to her. Leo is almost unrecognizable as this malign matriarch, and she’s unforgettable. Adding gaudy color to this dysfunctional working-class family are the boys’ seven shrill sisters, who loll about the household exhaling cigarette smoke and bad attitude.
It’s only when Micky summons the bravery to step away from this rat’s nest of codependence and self-destruction that his fighting career gets back on track. Just as Micky steps out of the shadow of his older brother—who’s off serving prison time—the beauty of Wahlberg’s quiet, watchful performance emerges from the dazzle of Bale’s bravura turn. When a clean Dicky returns home wanting to reclaim his old position in Micky’s corner, it’s hard not to root against him: is he truly reformed, or as dangerous as ever?
This is only Russell’s fifth feature—it’s been six years since I Heart Huckabees—and, as always, he refuses to repeat himself stylistically. Urgent, gritty, sometimes weirdly funny, The Fighter might be considered his first feel-good movie. But Russell’s too honest and acute an observer to serve up affirmation without leaving a subversive aftertaste of ambivalence and unease.
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