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The Fighter

dir: David O. Russell
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David O. Russell is a director not known for sports flicks. He’s known, if he’s known at all, for three things: directing Three Kings, which remains one of the only decent flicks set during the first Iraqi adventure; making a thoroughly stupid flick called I Heart Huckabees; and for a screaming match that occurred and was recorded between himself and Lily Tomlin on the set of that flick.

Mark Wahlberg is best known for having a brother who was in New Kids on the Block, who had a short career as rapper-performer-Renaissance man Marky Mark, and playing John Holmes stand-in Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights. He is not well known for his acting ability.

Christian Bale is best known for screaming abuse at people on the set of some films he’s been on. And a wicked eating disorder. He’s also an actor, or so I’ve been told.

The three of them, oh, and a bunch of other people as well, collaborate here in order to make a fairly amazingly good film, one which, noting the participants, the location, and what they’re famous for, I couldn’t really have predicted.

Based on the actual lives of actual people, The Fighter chronicles the rise, the fall, the stumbling, then the falling again, and eventual rise of a pair of brother boxers. Which one will triumph is not entirely clear until the end, unless you already know about the people involved and the golden era in which they fought.

The narrative device the flick uses, very successfully in my opinion, to tell the story initially is through a HBO documentary film crew following around someone who was initially a town hero, the Pride of Lowell, Massachusetts. Yes, unfortunately, it means we have to listen to those fucking accents for two hours, but you can’t have everything, after all. We don’t want our movies to be too perfect, do we? Otherwise we’d lose ourselves inside them permanently, never wanting to venture out of the cinema.

Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) was a boxer who shone ever so briefly back in the 80s, whose greatest claim to fame is that (he believes) he knocked Sugar Ray Leonard down in a fight, who was the champ at the time. For this one moment of glory, Dicky, now a fucked up crack addict, tries to trade on it and dine out on it for the rest of his life. Even as an emaciated junkie, he is still delusional enough to believe that he’s going to make a comeback one day, between hits of the pipe, presumably.

Even as he and his gorgon manager mother Alice (Melissa Leo) plot his return to the ring, his younger half-brother Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) trains to get his chance in the spotlight as well. Of course, having a selfish monster as your manager, who guilts you into every decision, and a crackhead brother for a trainer who’s never there and who constantly hobbles you because he’s ambivalent about you winning is not a recipe for success.

Micky’s other major impediment is that, well, there’s no other nice way of saying this, but he’s surrounded by a white trash family and community that wants nothing more than to drag him down and to mock him for the palooka that he seems to be.

He’s lost every fight in the ring thus far, and is treated as a stepping stone by other fighters, as in, someone easy you fight to improve your ranking so that it’s a quick way to get to a subsequent, better paid fight. It’s clearly implied, god love these hillbillies, that neither Dicky nor Mother Alice give a tinker’s dam about Micky’s wellbeing, and send him into fights where he’s guaranteed to get his arse handed to him, only in the interests of getting the appearance money.

So, in a minor turnabout for this kind of genre, where the talented wannabe has a few personal difficulties that are secondary only to his or her (but usually his) desire to succeed, whereby their indomitable spirit and stick-to-itiveness leads to eventual triumph, Micky’s problems are somewhat different. Although he doesn’t really seem to be that great a fighter, the main impediment to him succeeding in his chosen field is the fact that Dicky is a terrible and undependable trainer, and his mother/manager is a terrible mother and manager.

In the same way the prizefighter has to shed pounds of fat to prepare for a fight, Micky needs to shed family in order to triumph. But he’s loyal, and he’s a bit weak, so the gorgons in his family (including twelve or so of the white-trashiest sisters Massachusetts has ever expelled forth from its diseased loins) can easily keep him down.

That is, of course, until he meets the apparent love of his life, Charlene (Amy Adams), who is about as much of a tough-as-nails bitch as any in Micky’s family, with the crucial difference being that she at least loves Micky and has his best interests at heart. And she can throw down and punch on like a motherfucker as well. After seeing Amy Adams play sweet but Anne of Green Gables-types for most of her career, it’s a real buzz watching her play this kind of role with such relish.

The thing is, though, despite, or even because of the quality of the acting, I felt like I was watching talented actors, who are anything but white trash, condescend to the rest of us by playing poor people. As good as they are, there are moments where I couldn’t shake the feeling that that’s what Hollywood types think the rest of humanity, at least white humanity, lives and acts like.

And sure, the Massholes of Lowell, and the ‘working-drinking class’ of pretty much anywhere can be violent, drug addled and mean, with virtually nothing redeeming them apart from their love of Jesus, flags, guns and pitbulls, but who the fuck are these millionaires to talk down to the rest of us, eh?

At least Mark Wahlberg comes from that state, and knows these people intimately, apparently. But he’s not exactly a sensitive cultural ethnographer or anything. And nor is that his intention here. He was, it seems, a big fan of Micky Ward, and he was determined to tell Mick’s story at virtually any cost, including personal cost. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s really paid off, far more so than, say, Wahlberg’s other creative pursuits, like creating the series Entourage, which finds new depths to shallow stupidity each episode.

It’s really about watching a guy try really fucking hard to achieve something, despite all the impediments in his way, including his personal relationships. It’s also impossible to ignore that most of the pathos the flick musters is not so much in Micky struggling over whether to ditch his malignant family or not, but how even with his determination to achieve something for himself, to give meaning to his life (and, let’s face it, get a hefty payday), he still can’t abandon the brother he used to idolise.

And really, watching Dicky ranting and raving in his repellent yet charismatic way is just as crucial to the film having some meaning beyond the usual sports flick dynamic. Watching Bale play this character like the sand is running out of his hourglass is magnetic and compelling. I’ve tired of Bale’s method acting bullshit lately, and find the concept that someone has to be an abusive prick in order to achieve any greatness artistically to be a horrible and poisonous meme, and yet when he gets it right, he fucking well gets it right. Dicky Eklund is as much the core of the flick as Micky Ward, and, not to whip out the Dionysian-Apollonian dramaturgical dyad for no reason, the storytelling only works whilst we’re watching these two charming idiots redeem themselves in their own eyes, and each other’s.

And the reveal of the real purpose of the documentary is humiliating, and heartbreaking for all the right reasons.

Sure, it’s a boxing flick, so there are a fair few scenes of boxing. If you don’t like boxing flicks as a rule, I can’t imagine you abandoning your prohibitions now. I, on the other hand, love boxing flicks, since when they’re done right, they’re sublime. The real fight is rarely against the other boxer; it’s usually against the shit in a person’s life holding them back. And, of course, there are scenes of guys punching the fuck out of each other, which I generally like. The fights here look more realistic than the ones you usually sees in these kinds of flicks, because unlike, let’s say, all the Rocky flicks, boxers can’t usually take those kinds of full strength punches to the head for that many rounds without, um, what’s the phrase I’m looking for? Oh yeah, dying.

Here, the fighting is messy, unglamorous, up close, and very much trying to replicate the footage from the actual fights that Micky took part in, especially the last one in London. This is certainly to the flick’s benefit, and ours, as well.

The flick ticks all the dramatic and performance boxes, as far as I’m concerned, and works best for contradictory reasons: Wahlberg completely dials down his performance, and Bale consistently spins the dial way past the point where someone can say “but this one goes up to eleven”. Amy Adams offers ample support, and underplays her role (mostly) as well. Most of all, someone who looked like he was going to turn into an irredeemable hack, being director David O. Russell, shows that he’s capable of pulling such an elaborate and heartfelt construction together, matching and exceeding the dictates of the form and the genre. It was a delight to behold, and deserves the critical plaudits and positive word of mouth it’s received thus far.

All the same, it’s no ballet flick, with hot girl on girl action in it, but you can’t have everything, can you…

8 times I kept expecting Amy Adams to take up foxy boxing professionally out of 10

“Do you think I knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard?”
- “Yeah, sure I do. You were the pride of Lowell. You were my hero, Dicky.” – you could have been a contender, kid, you could have been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what you are – The Fighter