Multiple-Oscar winning performances elevate David O. Russell’s true-life boxer saga to near-modern classic status.
Boxing fascinates filmmakers probably more than any other sport, and the list of great boxing films reads like an honor roll of career-best performances. In the 1940′s Robert Ryan and John Garfield played embattled fighters in, respectively, The Set-Up and Body and Soul. Later, Stacey Keach did arguably his best work in John Huston’s Fat City (1973), and likewise Robert DeNiro’s turn as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull (1980) was probably his masterpiece. Sylvester Stallone, obviously, will be remembered best for Rocky Balboa, if only for the quality of that franchise’s first two installments.
With David O. Russell’s The Fighter Mark Wahlberg joins that mighty company, creating the best performance of his thirty-film career. It’s his bad luck that he’s surrounded by a trio of white-hot co-stars. Oscar winners Christian Bale and Melissa Leo are joined by the increasingly masterful Amy Adams, and while it’s inaccurate to say any of them chew the scenery or steal their scenes, too often they threaten to eclipse Wahlberg’s disciplined and craftsmanlike approach to the true-life part of hardscrabble welterweight Mickey Ward. The movie is too long, and too often loses focus, but in the end the film is all about performance and character anyway, and at worst it never capsizes as a result.
As a story The Fighter goes several rounds with severe structural problems. Much of its first hour is split – unevenly, arrythmically – between Ward’s bleak life of training and paving roads in Lowell, Massachusetts and depicting the descent of Ward’s half-brother Dicky Eklund (Bale) into crack addiction and self-loathing. Eklund was once a fighter himself, even at one time entering the ring with Sugar Ray Leonard, but those days are long behind him, and he knows it. A HBO camera crew follows the brothers, with Eklund bragging of a comeback to the Lowell townspeople. The script (six writers are given credit for screenplay and story) drifts back and forth between the two, illustrating their lives in rust-belt Lowell in all its dreary meanness. As a result the main character is frequently hard to identify – Bale is so forceful, and given so much screen time, that his part strains against supporting character status.
Ward keeps his head down preparing for low-end fights and working to improve his boxing status past “stepping stone” – a fighter that true contenders advance over on their way to a title shot. He’s spun his wheels for years, it seems, thanks to the arrogant incompetence of his mother and manager Alice Eklund (Leo). Alice, blindly favoring Eklund, bungles Ward’s chances again and again; Micky, too loyal by half to his half-brother and mother, follows their flawed guidance.
Things pick up as the HBO crew dogs Eklund’s debauched existence and Ward’s struggle to assert himself as a person, even after a fight with an opponent twenty pounds heavier leaves him half-demolished. Hope arrives in the form of bartender Charlene Fleming (Adams), a woman tough enough to stand up for Ward against his mother. She’s so self-assured, in fact, that you often wonder if perhaps in forsaking his mother for Charlene’s guidance Ward didn’t simply trade one virago for another. It’s a credit to the film, and to Adams, that Charlene is never reduced to the “woman as life-giving force” trope common in underdog stories; she remains a character in her own right throughout, with an individual story that’s worth watching.
Of course all of this character building has to lead somewhere. After Eklund heads to jail after a lurid, hare-brained scheme to raise money for Ward’s training the film centers firmly on Ward’s struggle to prepare seriously for the first time in his life, aided not just by Charlene but by his father (Jack McGee) and a local police sergeant (Ward’s real-life trainer Mickey O’Keefe, playing himself.) Eklund stews in prison as Ward climbs the boxing ladder, especially after the HBO special lays bare his drug-wrecked squalor. He leaves prison detoxed and ready to help his half-brother in an upcoming title bout with brutal opponent Shea Neary (Anthony Molinari).
As a fighter Ward is neither prodigy nor hopeless cause, lacking the potential for greatness one might expect from such underdog stories but not suffering from a complete dearth of talent, either. He’s a journeyman, mediocre fighter with easily identifiable flaws and weaknesses in and out of the ring. It’s arguable that Eklund was the more naturally gifted pugilist, but the film avoids any such speculation in favor or this-is-now immediacy, which keeps it from sinking into family melodrama. Wahlberg wisely modulates his performance to show Ward’s plod-through-it attitude, a potent counterpoint to the hot air of Eklund and their mother. Ward walks the walk while Eklund talks the talk, and (almost subtly) wins audience sympathy as a sly result.
To his credit, Russell is canny enough as a director to allow his actors room to move within scenes, zeroing in facial expressions when important but careful to give Bale plenty of room to convey Eklund’s outsized, narcissistic charm. Not for nothing, but the film begins with Bale perched on the edge of a couch, full and center frame, as if ready to pounce on the audience. It’s a fitting image of what’s to come, even if it does help create the “who’s the main character” confusion complained about above. The director sometimes runs into problems knowing when to cut a scene, and when to break away from a shot or trim establishing sequences that don’t earn their keep within the storylines. It’s a small detail, but with so much story to tell everything that’s included ought to carry its weight. The parts that don’t seem especially out of place by comparison.
But like Russell’s earlier Three Kings and Flirting With Disaster, sharp supporting performances help to fill in the gaps created by the bumpy dramaturgy. Besides the practically flawless Leo, veteran character actor McGee creates a warm, almost nurturing presence within the half-brothers’ lives. McGee has made a career of playing characters named “Chief” and “Sarge,” most recently on FX’s Rescue Me. To see him expand his talents in a fully written part is true fun, and rewarding besides. As a whole The Fighter isn’t perfect, but it’s a great film in a year of mediocre ones, and deserves its place among the champions of boxing cinema.
- Michael Kabel