Sports films, as a genre, flow from a few templates. Films about boxing are no exception: the rags-to-riches rise, the inevitable decline, the montage of fights leading to a title shot, and the boxer who needs to inflict and receive pain (both in and out of the ring) are calling cards of all boxing films.
The Fighter tells the true story of boxer Micky Ward (Mark Walhberg, in his third David O. Russell feature) and his older half-brother Dickie Eklund (Christian Bale). Micky and Dickie are from Lowell, Massachusetts. Lowell is just thirty minutes outside of Boston, but it might as well be part of Southie, a setting that has just about reached its saturation point on film (I blame Ben Affleck. See: Good Will Hunting, Gone Baby Gone, The Town). Still, the ethic neighborhoods with their gray skies, cheap paneling, and poor-white-trash denizens feel authentic here, even if the jock jam soundtrack and whiskey-fueled bar brawls push towards parody.
The film opens with an interview of Dickie, who is being filmed (allegedly) for a documentary chronicling his comeback. Breaking down their different fight styles, Dickie says Micky “takes the punishment; I don’t know why he does it.” Unsurprisingly, Dickie is also describing Micky’s personal life.
The boxing theme is but a setting: while The Fighter spends a lot of time in gyms and the ring, it’s really about Micky and his family dynamic. Dickie is an ex-boxer, and the worst kind at that: a con-man and drug addict, fixated on regaining his former glory (Christian Bale regains his gaunt Machinist frame, with shifty, hollow eyes and a wickahd accent). He’s also Micky’s trainer (shades of Raging Bull), where his personal failings affect Micky both personally and professionally. The boys share a mother, Alice, played by Melissa Leo, who disappears into the role of bottle-blond ball-breaker. Rounding out the family are seven sisters, serving as a Greek chorus of skanks. Obviously, the family is toxic. They are a collection of parasites, feeding off Micky, projecting their dreams and insecurities on the only semi-decent one of the bunch, all the while proclaiming that family is above all.
The Raging Bull connection doesn’t stop at the brotherly subplot. Fights with Sugar Ray Leonard loom large for both Dickie and the Raging Bull himself, Jake LaMotta. Dickie constant harping (“I knocked Ray down!”) recalls the famous scene of LaMotta, bloodied and beaten: “Never got me down, Ray.”
Micky is coming off a string of loses that have left his career at a teetering point. Meanwhile, Dickie’s “comeback” is a pipe dream, literally. The documentary isn’t about his comeback, it’s about crack addition. Despite his condition, everyone (Micky included) thinks Dickie in his corner is what Micky needs to break through.
Enter Charlene (Amy Adams), the barmaid who wins Micky’s heart. Charlene is no shrieking violet: she’s the only one headstrong enough to face-off against his family and keep his life on track. Adams’ no-bullshit performance is reminiscent of that of another Amy – Amy Ryan’s surprising turn in Gone Baby Gone.
Micky’s central conflict is choosing between family and external players, whether its Charlene or someone like Mike Toma, a promoter who wants Micky to train in Vegas with his guys. When faced with these outside forces, Dickie’s reaction is a half-brained pyramid scheme. When that fails, he pimps out his girlfriend and shakes down the johns. Finally, Dickie hits rock bottom: he assaults a couple police officers, gets Micky’s hand brutally broken and ends up in jail.
Dickie detoxes (in a paint-by-numbers scene meant to stand in ‘Facing Ones Demons’) and becomes a bit of a prison celebrity. Meanwhile, Micky struggles to put the pieces of his life back together. When “Crack in America” debuts, it’s a very public airing of the family’s dirty laundry that finally convinces Micky to cut the ties that bind. No one takes this harder than Alice, who tries to take out her frustration on Charlene.
In the end, the answer isn’t either-or. He needs Alice, Dickie and Charlene (and even his trashy sisters), and until they finally decide to co-exist for Micky’s sake, they all hold him back in their own ways. When they realize this, everything starts to click for Micky, and the last act plays out predictably. Surprisingly, the film ends with his title bout against Shea Neary, a 2000 fight that preceded Ward’s famed trilogy of fights against Arturo Gatti.
When it comes to actual boxing, Russell doesn’t try to romanticize the action. The fighting isn’t poetic, it’s visceral and dehumanizing. In his first fight back against an out-sized opponent, he takes an almost unrealistic number of hits to the head. As is his style, he’s always taking a beating. He can’t win off points – he always needs a knockout. Once again, boxing stands in for life.
The Fighter tells the familiar story of a boxer’s redemption through our most savage sport. It’s a character study that takes its cues from Raging Bull and Rocky. So while it doesn’t cover much new ground, Russell allows his four leads to really shine: the pride of Lowell, the roses from the concrete.