Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Fighter: All in the Family

Boxing films have had a long history of success at the Academy Awards—from Wallace Beery winning an Oscar for his performance in The Champ (1931) to the mother of all boxing films, Rocky, which took home the Best Picture trophy in 1976. Boxing films have also been showcases for some incredible acting, with Robert DeNiro winning Best Actor as the incendiary Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) and Hilary Swank winning Best Actress as the doomed Maggie Fitzgerald in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby (2004—that film also won Best Picture). The Fighter continues the tradition of boxing films garnering Academy acclaim.

Mighty performances carry this film to greatness. Three actors in the film received Supporting Acting nominations. First is the magnetic Christian Bale as Dicky Ward—“The Pride of Lowell”—a broken down boxer turned junkie who is living off the long extinguished glory of knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard in a bout televised on HBO. Next is character actress Melissa Leo (those who loved the NBC series Homicide: Life on the Street know just how good Leo can be) as his mother, Alice Ward, terrifyingly strong under an updo and sunglasses. Alice manages the career of her son “Irish” Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg, who also produced the film) while Dicky is the trainer. Rivaling the Wards for Micky’s affections is Charlene Fleming (Amy Adams—in a nice change of pace from her good-girl roles)—the final nominated role. Charlene sees through Dicky’s schemes and won’t be intimidated by Alice or the seven Ward sisters—harridans each—as she forges a relationship with Micky.

Tempestuous relationships between these characters make up the soul of The Fighter. Director David O. Russell, who has made some very idiosyncratic films such as Spanking the Monkey, Flirting With Disaster, Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees (the last two were made with Wahlberg, who hand-picked Russell to direct The Fighter) invests more soul into the behind the scenes drama with the Ward family than be does with Micky’s rise through the welterweight ranks. Essentially, the film has three distinct acts: chronicling Dicky’s crack cocaine addiction and how it disrupts Micky’s career, Micky and Charlene’s relationship and how the Wards react to it, and lastly, Micky’s eventual rise to capture the welterweight championship. Russell makes the first two parts of the film fresh and unique; the rise to the championship story is the same underdog story that has long since been made cliché.

Dicky’s story is fascinating because Russell stages it as a film within the film. In reality, Dicky was a subject of an HBO documentary—High On Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell—and the early part of The Fighter is filmed in a cinema verité style that mirrors the documentary footage. The extent of Dicky’s addiction is made clear to the audience because unbeknownst to Dicky, he thinks the documentarians are chronicling his comeback story instead of highlighting his addiction. Bale totally disappears into the role of Dicky as we see him lie, wheedle, jump out of second story windows, and yet still carry an undeniable charisma associated with addicts. Bale is known for his Method approach, and his commitment to the character—Bale also lost a significant amount of weight for the role, and stayed in character between takes—makes the actor indistinguishable from the part. Like eyes being drawn to a trainwreck, Bale makes it impossible for the audience to remove their gaze whenever Dicky is on screen.

As the film progresses, the audience sees that Alice is just as large of a liability to Micky’s career as Dicky’s crack addiction. She manages the careers of both her sons, although it is clear that the rest of the boxing community regards her as a joke, and she is only able to draw matches for Micky where he has to fight boxers far out of his weight class. Consequently, as Alice and Dicky force Micky to accept those fights for the purse, Micky suffers grievous injury.
While rehabbing, Micky meets Charlene, a tough broad working as a bartender. Herself a former athlete (a high jumper), Charlene sees that Micky has more potential as a fighter than he realizes, and that his loyalty to his mother and brother is what is keeping him from realizing his potential. Thus a conflict is staged between Alice and Charlene for the heart of Micky.

Leo and Adams play magnificently off one another. Leo makes Alice into a very complicated villainous figure. She very clearly loves her sons, but she is in total denial about Dicky’s addictions—so much so that she enables his behavior—and she is immovably stubborn about how Micky’s career should be managed. In her eyes, Micky wouldn’t even have any sort of success without her guidance and Dicky’s training. Alice is also the unquestioned matriarch of the clan. Raising nine children has given Alice a sense of earned superiority. Unfortunately, as a consequence of her self-inflated sense of power, she has browbeaten her husband into submission, and her seven daughters—all of whom appear to still live at home—are commanded like minions whenever Alice needs dirty work to be done. When Micky brings Charlene to meet the family, the sisters take their cues from Alice in disparaging Charlene, and the bilious accusations of “slut” and “whore” that spew sevenfold forth from their pie-holes lead to an all-out, seven-on-one girlfight. The brawl spills out of the Ward living room onto the street, and serves as both a dramatic and comedic highpoint of the film.

The sisters have a combined sloth and ugliness—it’s hard to imagine these women as ever being attractive, and the actresses playing them do so without an ounce of vanity—that the comparison between them and Charlene is lopsided to the point where it really isn’t fair. It is to Adams’ credit that she makes Charlene not a caricature, not simply “the good girl”. You know that she sees potential in Micky because she one had that potential too. She herself is a fighter, possessing many of the same strengths that Alice does—tenacity, willpower, business sense—but using them in such a way that Micky can blossom. Charlene becomes a representative for the audience, for she knows that the only way Micky can succeed is to break himself from the toxic hold of his mother and sister. Adams makes Charlene a strong character that is easy to fall in love with.

Anchoring the film is Wahlberg, who is very solid as “Irish” Micky Ward. Wahlberg is completely believable in the physical aspects of the role, and he knows how to lay down a solid foundation as a straight man for the supporting cast with their over-the-top performances. I have heard criticisms to the effect that Wahlberg is overshadowed by his supporting cast but really, the character of Micky is written as passive and stoic. Micky is a man who is divided in his loyalties. He does have a desire to become champion, and knows shedding Dicky and Alice is the first step on that journey, yet cannot reconcile the feeling in his heart that to achieve success he must betray his family. Micky is a man who has had decisions made for him his entire life; no wonder he can barely articulate his frustrations. Micky is also just as dependent on his family as Dicky is to his crack addiction. Wahlberg understands how the two brothers are connected by each of their own addictions, and he also knows that what Micky is also equally fighting for is his own sense of independence. For me, Wahlberg made Micky’s internal struggles crystal clear. It’s the kind of performance that is easily overshadowed—especially when actors the caliber of Bale, Leo and Adams round out the supporting cast—yet takes tremendous skill as an actor to make believable.

It’s a bit of a shame then that the story neatly wraps up its conflicts by the time the third act kicks into gear and the plot focuses on Micky as the underdog fighter working his way up to a title bout. If you’ve seen any of the Rocky sequels, you know how this is going to play out. I know The Fighter is a fact based drama, but many of the threads are wrapped up too neatly. Dicky’s addiction, for one, is resolved by a prison sentence and the fact that Micky remembers his advice in order to win a challenging match. It’s as if Russell decided, “Okay, we need to have a big boxing match for the finale” when really, the struggle of the film is with Micky overcoming his dependency on his family and learning to succeed on his own. The third act tries to have it both ways unsuccessfully. However, I will admit the fights are thrilling and certainly had me shadowboxing in the theater and cheering on Micky as he vanquished the limey bastard holding the title. Those scenes feel like they belong to a different film though.

Ultimately, if The Fighter wins Best Picture, credit must go to Mark Wahlberg. Wahlberg is also a credited producer on the film. His relationship with David O. Russell secured a director for the film (after, interestingly enough, Darren Aronofsky was slated to direct the film). A Massachusetts representative, Wahlberg knew of and was passionate about Micky Ward’s story. It is Wahlberg who insisted on filming in Lowell, Massachusetts, often at the locations where the Wards trained. In a further bit of added realism, Wahlberg suggested that Mickey O’Keefe, one of Micky’s trainers, play himself in the film. Wahlberg was insistent that the fights remain grounded and not over-the-top. Wahlberg insisted on authenticity in The Fighter, and along with the tremendous performances from the cast, authenticity is the strength of the film.

I think that The Fighter will certainly walk away with an acting Oscar or two. Bale and Leo are the prohibitive favorites in their categories, and the only changes I’d make to the nominations are that Wahlberg should have received a Best Actor nomination while the screenwriters are undeserving of one. No matter what happens on February 27th, The Fighter continues the tradition of boxing themed pictures representing well at the Oscars. The sport, and the drama behind it, continues to inspire filmmakers to greatness.


The Fighter (2010)

Director: David O. Russell

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo

Studio: Paramount Pictures

Total Oscar Nominations: 7 (Best Picture—David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman, Ryan Kavanaugh, Mark Wahlberg; Best Director—David O. Russell; Best Supporting Actor—Christian Bale; Best Supporting Actress—Amy Adams; Best Supporting Actress—Melissa Leo; Best Original Screenplay—Scott Silver & Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson & Keith Dorrington; Best Editing—Pamela Martin)

NEXT BLOG: Inception


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. @ Saleem--I appreciate you checking out my blog, but please do not use the comments section as an advertisement for your website. I do not mind if there are links to other blogs or websites that discuss film, but to advertise your website is wholly inappropriate here. I am deleting the body of your posting.