Not Your Stepping-Stone – Review: The Fighter

I’m going to try really hard not make any obvious boxing puns or analogies while writing this. I will, however, compare The Fighter and director David O. Russell to the phoenix. Much like the phoenix, arising anew from the ashes, Russell seems to reinvent himself with each new film. From Spanking the Monkey to Flirting with Disaster to Three Kings then I Heart Huckabees and now The Fighter, he seems, like most great artists, to be perpetually evolving, with the one constant being that he makes great films.

[Minor spoilers ahead, but nothing that isn’t already alluded to in the trailer.]

This time around, Russell sets his sites on the true story of boxer, “Irish” Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), and his troubled half-brother Dickie Eklund (Christian Bale), his trainer and a former boxer himself. The story deals with Micky’s struggle to make a name for his self as a welterweight fighter and get out of his brother’s shadow. A difficult task when Dickie’s already labeled “the pride of Lowell” after his famous bout with legendary “Sugar” Ray Leonard. But the boxing is almost secondary to the familial drama between Micky, Dickie and the rest of their family.

Between his matriarchal mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), reigning over the Ward/Eklund clan with an iron-fist and Dickie the brazen, oft-tempestuous, crack-addict, Micky seems not only a stepping-stone in the ring but in his life in general. Exacerbating Micky’s feelings of inferiority, Dickie is the subject of a documentary and being shadowed by a film crew as he trains Micky for his next fight.

After an embarrassing defeat, a scuffle between Dickie and the police resulting in Micky’s hand being broken as well as Dickie’s incarceration in prison, and the revelation that the documentary about Dickie is actually an expose on crack, all seems lost. But from the ashes, Micky rises anew.

Wahlberg and Bale are great together. They have excellent chemistry. While Wahlberg plays the main character, much like Dickie, Bale steals the show. Much of the film seems to revolve around Dickie. And the dual-narratives of Micky building himself up again while Dickie gets clean in prison do seem to compete, but this doesn’t detract from the film as a whole. It strengthens what seems to me to be the core of the film, so that Dickie can step aside and acknowledge that it’s Micky’s turn. Bale disappears into the role, taking it to manic peaks and desperate lows, in one of his most brilliantly animated performances. Definite Oscar potential here.

Not to diminish Wahlberg’s performance, it’s just that his character is the calm at the eye of the storm, with his crazy family wreaking havoc all around him. And Wahlberg plays Micky’s timidity perfectly, without being swayed by all the boisterous characters that surround him, gradually building up to his defining moment measure by measure. Much like Micky, Wahlberg is a skilled strategist.

Then there’s Melissa Leo, with a surprise standout performance. I was completely blown away by the nuances of her character. In lesser hands Alice could come off as a one-note, overbearing matriarch. But Leo gives the character amazing depth, at times Alice comes off as the heavy, domineering and tyrannical; then she also has these almost soul-crushingly sympathetic moments when she’s so unequivocally sincere. When a crack-addled Dickie attempts to get on her good graces by singing “I Started a Joke” as she tries to fight back her tears it’s heartbreaking. I wouldn’t be surprised if Leo earns a best-supporting actress nomination with this performance.

Of course, Amy Adams is no slouch as the fiery Charlene, a nice departure from some of her more bubbly roles. Charlene is part of the spark that spurs Micky onward, pushing him to get out from behind his mother and brother. Adams plays the part effortlessly, bringing Charlene’s tenderness and tenacity to life. Still, this isn’t as much of a bravura performance as Melissa Leo’s.

Russell delivers an extremely lively film, thanks in large part to Christian Bale’s performance. The Fighter is excellent sort of Shakespearean examination of the ties that bind family together and the strain they can cause. The film is also very indicative of the work of Scorsese, and not just Raging Bull. Again, the boxing is almost on the periphery of the film, a side note. Though it is like a sort of reversal of the roles in Raging Bull, The Fighter feels a lot like Goodfellas in its pacing and structure. It’s a great film and there’s just so much going on that I couldn’t possibly cover it all without giving too much away. Great performances all around. It has wonderful energy. The Fighter is a definite awards contender. I’m anxious to see what Russell has for us next.

Grade: A


10 responses to “Not Your Stepping-Stone – Review: The Fighter

  1. Apparently a video game adaptation.

    “Then there’s Melissa Leo, with a surprise standout performance”

    This isn’t a surprise if you’ve seen Leo’s previous work…especially and most recently her role on HBO’s Treme.

  2. Dude…Frozen River, The Three Burials of Melquides Estrada, 21 Grams, her work on Homicide: Life on the Street.

    I’m happy to hear she’s so good in this, but you need to see her other stuff.

    • I never got round to Frozen River. I don’t remember her in Three Burials. I just now remembered her role in 21 Grams, which was good, but not as substantial as here. And I’ve never seen Homicide. You know I how I am about cop shows.

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