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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
I Am Leaving, but the Fighter Still Remains
by Donald Levit

The first half of The Fighter outpoints the last, though neither part is KO’d. Rather, Christian Bale’s kinetic cokehead Dicky Eklund and Melissa Leo’s bossy mama Alice Ward are so spot-on that, as they fade somewhat before the junior welterweight trajectory of half-brother and son “Irish” Micky Ward (lifelong boxing fan Mark Wahlberg) -- the whole becomes a predictable if likeable redemption-vindication piece. Which is not to say that, this time around “based on” reality, the obvious Rocky fantasy is not a winner in both rounds. If manipulative, the music-pounded makeshift outdoor training, arrogant USSR and UK (Anthony Molinan) opponents and sock-‘em final bouts are still the meat and potatoes of the Dream Factory.

Profane and crowd-pleasing, David O. Russell’s offering is not an undisputed champion to rank up with Body and Soul, The Set-Up, Champion and Somebody Up There Likes Me, not only because it does not touch on the gangsters, ganefs, gold diggers and lowlifes who pollute the sport, nor because its straight hero is not the unattractive but more fascinating Jake La Motta of Raging Bull. Here, instead, love in the end conquers, the good-but-misguided reform, family stays together, and the down-but-not-out character that is Lowell, Mass., regains its pride.

Footnoted in unnecessary end-titles, the future -- three epic 2002-03 fights with Arturo Gatti, ring retirement, marriage two years later -- is not necessary to add anything to the plot that sticks close to Ward’s story as originally penned by two of the three scriptwriters. Reform, rededication, redemption and triumph of the underdog in London; family reunion; love and marriage -- the American success story, perhaps even on through to Oscar night.

This is thirty-one-year-old Ward’s story, but the parallel and at heart more human fight takes place between overpowering Alice and sweet but equally tough and profane wife-to-be Charlene Fleming (Amy Adams), a bartender who went to college, has been around the block and takes guff from no one. Alice’s second husband, George Ward (Jack McGee), strikes one as too sane to have happily married her, but he presumably sees her misguided good heart and prudently keeps out of her chain-smoking way seconded by her yes-women chorus of seven daughters with hair peroxided to lifelessness and nicknames like Pork, Tar, Beaver, Red Dog and Little Alice. Dicky’s crack-house window escapes from her onto garbage bags are one too many, and her ignorance of his condition is either unlikely or else denial.

She and he (mis)manage the younger son’s career, while he works as road-paver, and later roofer for George, in between two-bit bouts against has-beens, never-were’s and, when a “black Jew” is floored by flu, the eighteen-pound-heavier sledgehammer Mike “Machine Gun” Mungin (Peter Cunningham). The Palookaville combats trickle chump change rather than respectable paydays into family coffers but give mother a chance to control and Dicky a small spotlight to relive his own fizzled career and debatable moment of glory against Sugar Ray Leonard.

Dicky’s unreliability is the mum despair of second Mickey O’Keefe (a real-life family friend, as himself), moonlighting from his police-sergeant job, and of George. But older brother pulls a stupid act that lands him in slammer and the agony of cold turkey and Micky in soft-bellied retirement with a hand broken by a billy club. Enter the love of a good woman, Charlene, and the taking of a stance by George and O’Keefe, and the rough road upward begins.

SPOILER ALERT

That the family is reunited is made patent when now-disciplined Micky adopts his brother’s “head-body” plan of attack. Pandering but stirring pugilistic victory is, nevertheless, only part of it, as blood is thicker than sweat and, representative of the rest, fathers Micky and Dicky open truer relationships with themselves, each other and their respective children from before (Caitlin Dwyer as Kasie and Jackson Nicoll as Little Dicky).

Charley Malloy derails younger brother Terry’s ring career in On the Waterfront, and his lifeblood flows to redeem them both. For a no less human prize in The Fighter, an older brother must recognize what he has become in order to boost his sibling. The opening and closing couch interviews -- for an HBO High on Crack Street that is not about his own prowess, as Dicky made himself believe -- picture that change from manic self-promotion to calm acceptance in passing on the family and the Lowell torches.

(Released by Paramount Pictures and rated “R” for language throughout, drug content, some violence and sexuality.)


                                                                                                                                                                               
 
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