If Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale aren’t enough to drive moviegoers into the theatre, then the action-packed dysfunctional family elements of The Fighter should. In this absorbing drama based on a true story, the two popular stars portray Dicky Eklund and Micky Ward, boxers who have to take their game out of the ring and face a few tough reality rounds with family members -- and eventually themselves.
Dicky (Bale) has spent his life perfecting his punch. Despite the unhealthy interpersonal interaction of his mother Alice (Melissa Leo), Dicky -- labeled the "Pride of Lowell," Massachusetts – defeated Sugar Ray Leonard on July 18, 1978. That history could have propelled Dicky into a very successful career, but instead he took a path filled with drugs and destruction.
When Dicky announces that HBO is coming to Lowell to film his return to the ring, the town and his family are excited. Dicky expects his sparring partner and brother, Micky (Mark Wahlberg), to help make him a champ once again. Micky, also a fighter, has his own fan club including his father George (Jack McGee). He’s seen Dicky rise and fall and is no longer interested in his schemes or his cover ups to his addiction. Yet he does see potential in Micky, and although he and Alice have confrontations about his allegiance, George backs Micky to the fullest.
So while Dicky parades around town boasting about his HBO film, Micky takes to training like a bloodhound hot on a trail for a long-missed meal. He’s aided by an unlikely trainer, Mickey O’Keefe, the Lowell policeman who plays himself and actually helped train the real Micky. This scenario is a constant throughout the film as Alice detests O’Keefe’s interference in making Micky a stronger boxer than Dicky.
The family dynamic suffers another hit when Micky falls for the street-smart bartender, Charlene (Amy Adams). She sizes up the family situation quickly. And while she’s continually ridiculed by Alice and Micky’s dysfunctional and backward posse of sisters, Charlene uses logic and her deep love to steer Micky in positive ways to drive his own career in the big ring. In no time at all, Micky becomes a world welterweight champion, but with many repercussions in his family life.
Both Bale and Wahlberg excel in their performances and went to great lengths to make the portrayals of their characters authentic. Bale lost 30 pounds, undertook intensive boxing training, but more than that he understood the man behind the mighty fists. Dicky is at times funny, charming and almost believable in his ability to come from behind and continue his legacy when in fact he’s really headed to prison for a long time. Bale offers an Oscar-worthy depiction of this affable but often sad character.
“Christian was perfect because he is one of those chameleon actors who transforms himself,” said Director David O. Russell. “He spent a lot of time with the real Dicky Eklund and he became him.”
Wahlberg offers what may be his finest performance here as the “Irish Thunder.” He also put in years training before the film was green lighted. Perfectly trained to take the hard punches, Wahlberg also understood the broken relationships and inter-sparring between family members. He infuses the character of Micky with a tough love for his brother Dicky, a respect and love for his mother that transcends his ability to turn a cold shoulder to her nagging and love for Charlene that not only protects her like a shinning knight but listens to her sound advice about his career.
“Mark has been a fighter, he has also been in and out of jail in the past, so he brought all that realness, all that heart and all that experience to the character of Micky,” Russell said. “Mark set the bar very high with how much commitment he had to give the role and how much love he had for these people. It elevated everything everyone else did, whether you were the makeup artist or the director.”
Russell (Flirting With Disaster), whose previous films haven’t soared in box office results, does an incredible job with The Fighter which sets the bar high for his future. Dutch cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Let the Right One In) gets high marks for his sensational ability to capture a seamless story with so many engaging elements, including the love of the sport of fighting and family as well as the financial dependability that encapsulates it all. Every moment in the ring, in romantic scenes, and in depiction of family struggles feels real.
An absorbing story with profound performance, The Fighter is among my TOP 10 films for 2010 and will probably fill many slots on January’s Oscar nomination lists.
(Released by Paramount Pictures and rated “R” for language throughout, drug content, some violence and sexuality.)
Review also posted at www.reviewexpress.com.