Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Fighter Movie Review: One Fights and the Other Boxes

That David O. Russell’s The Fighter is “based on a true story” is not what makes it so good. After all, everybody’s life is a true story, but the vast majority of them wouldn’t make even watchable movies. Anyway, “based on a true story” is always a misleading entry into a movie. No matter how much truth is in the screenplay (in this case the product of Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson), the writers always end up playing fast and loose with some story elements.

I can’t say how much of the story of brothers Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund, professional boxers from Lowell, Massachusetts, is true or not. But looking at Micky’s list of professional fights on Wikipedia, it’s clear that his late-stage successful career has been truncated for dramatic effect. Not that this matters much, but it serves to highlight how even a film as steeped in realism as this one can play with facts to enhance not only the dramatic power of the narrative, but to keep the plot within manageable constraints.


Russell uses different techniques and cameras to build the documentary feel he’s trying to achieve. Whether it’s the grainy video footage he uses to recreate HBO’s America Undercover episode on Dicky’s life (which focused on crack addiction) or the beta video cameras used to shoot the boxing sequences (these are the same type of cameras HBO used to use to shoot actual boxing matches), or the working class city of Lowell and the actors’ performances, it’s easy to forget that you’re watching a representation of fact and not the fact itself.

This is important to keep in mind during the boxing matches, which feature dramatic reversals often seen in the Rocky sequels leading me to question my willing suspension of disbelief. But Russell and his team of fight coordinators used the original footage of Ward’s fights and the sequences in the film use the actual commentary provided by Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant and Roy Jones, Jr.

The standard, not only for boxing films, but for underdog sports films, was set by Rocky more than 30 years ago. It’s clear that Russell and his editor, Pamela Martin, are well-versed in the editing and shooting style of those fight scenes. Granted, they used HBO’s actual footage from those matches to both choreograph and shoot them, but the way the later fights are cut together is reminiscent of the Oscar-winning work of Richard Halsey and Scott Conrad.

Mark Wahlberg is Micky, a boxer with talent who has been badly managed by his self-serving mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), and only half-served by Dicky (Christian Bale in a shattering performance), his older brother, mentor and trainer. Dicky’s crack addiction often gets the better of him and it leads him to turn up late to or completely miss training sessions. Dicky and Alice continue to harbor illusions about his comeback. In fact, they delude themselves into thinking that the HBO crew following them around is documenting his eventual return to the boxing ring and not the real face of drug addiction.

Bale inhabits every aspect of Dicky’s soul so completely. He loses himself 100 percent in a way I haven’t seen since The Machinist, (perhaps not) incidentally another film for which he lost an unhealthy amount of weight. I grew up on HBO and have seen their America Undercover series – Bale’s Dicky is a character straight out of any of those episodes, which tended to document working class criminals scraping by on the streets.

He is backed up by a superb cast. Wahlberg may stand in Bale’s shadow here, but he is the rock that holds the piece together. He displays a vulnerability not seen since his breakout role. Micky stands by in silent reservation while his family makes decisions for him – much like his Dirk Diggler does in the early scenes of Boogie Nights. Melissa Leo raises Alice above being nothing more than a monster. She comes across as selfish, a mess of a mother, but I think she’s a woman who simply doesn’t have the wherewithal to make good decisions. She honestly wants what’s best for all her children (which also includes seven daughters). Unfortunately for her and her sons, the things that are best for Micky and Dicky are often mutually exclusive ideals.

The supporting players are just as good and equally important. There’s Amy Adams, known mainly for playing sweet and innocent, as Micky’s girlfriend Charlene. She’s the image of sugar on the outside, but just barely masking the roughneck of Lowell lurking beneath the surface. Her brutal side comes out when it comes to protecting Micky. In Charlene we have a character who seems at first to be the kind of supportive pillar Micky needs to succeed, but she turns out to be not a whole lot different from his family. From the first moment she meets Alice and the sisters, she’s already speaking for Micky. You know the day will come when he’ll finally let it burst and start speaking for himself.

In addition to Adams there’s also Jack McGee as Micky’s father – another man who barely has any say when Alice is in the room. I won’t list the seven actresses who play the sisters. Always seen together and behaving with a hive mentality they don’t come across as individuals, but the performances struck me as genuine enough that I wondered if they weren’t local amateurs as opposed to professional actresses.

Some of the scenes involving Dicky’s lifestyle would be genuinely comic if they weren’t at the same time desperately tragic and real. Watching Dickie leap – for the second time – from the second floor window of his crack house into a pile of garbage to avoid detection by his mother induces nervous laughter immediately followed by the quiet realization that his life is simply sad. His mother sees the sadness in it as well, even if she is loath to admit that her son has a serious drug addiction that will eventually either kill him or land him in prison.

As much as the comparisons are warranted, The Fighter is not exactly Rocky. It’s not the story of a nobody who gets a title shot. Micky is a hard-working boxer who trudges his way up the ranks. It’s got the inspirational element, which of course any great sports movie must have, but what sets it apart from is the focus of that inspiration. The title may refer to one or both of the brothers and in the case of Dicky could be a comment on either his former profession or his current state of existence.

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