As Mena Suvari’s teenage temptress Angela Hayes told us in “American Beauty,” there’s nothing worse than being ordinary. In the ring of boxing movies, it’s all too easy to become ordinary. While the latest contender to take a punch at the reigning champions, David O. Russell’s “The Fighter” is a little too lightweight to compete, it’s got some nice heart. And as practically all movies about the sport have taught us, soul is all that really matters, right?
However, this isn’t really a boxing movie so much as a movie involving boxing. It’s mainly a story of brotherhood, family, and pride that’s made all the more fascinating because it’s true. As many cinematic boxers preceding him have, Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) works a low-paying, labor-intensive job to make a living since his boxing career won’t exactly pay the bills. In his corner, he has his brother, former prize fighter Dickie Ecklund (Christian Bale) who became the pride of their hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts after triumphing over Sugar Ray Leonard. Now, he’s an unreliable mess so addicted to crack that HBO is doing a documentary on him.
Micky is in many ways inexorably tied to his family with Dickie as his trainer and his tenacious mother (Melissa Leo) as his manager. She performed the same role back when Dickie was in the ring and often still acts like his manager as opposed to Micky’s. She puts an emphasis on family unity, which is tough for Micky to swallow as his many trashy half-sisters are often very overbearing. Micky’s familial concerns lie with his young daughter being raised by his bitter ex-wife and her husband, neither of which want him to have any part in her life because of his lifestyle.
But a whole lot changes when checking out a fine figure at a bar elevates from casual to life-changing. Charlene (Amy Adams) is hardly the average bartender; she sees right through Micky and inspires him to seek what he truly desires with all his might: a real chance at being a champion boxer and a meaningful relationship with his daughter. With his best interest in mind, she advises him to dump the unreliable Dickie as his trainer and hire a professional manager to replace his mother. This is clearly not well received by his family, who tries to dismiss her as a wild “MTv Girl” out to destroy his career.
The movie simply wouldn’t work without the heart invested in it by Wahlberg, Bale, and Adams. As a story, it’s not all that captivating simply because boxing underdog stories have been such popular Hollywood material. But as a movie, it’s riveting because of all the emotion the stars put into it. Wahlberg grew up idolizing Micky Ward and saw many parallels to his own rise to success from small-town Massachusetts. The connection is very present, and while he may lack somewhat in the acting department, he makes up for it with his physical commitment and passion for the role.
Adams, usually the delightfully effervescent charmer, plays gritty and unapologetic in “The Fighter” and pulls it off to Oscar-worthy standards. She’s able to pull off just about any sort of character she takes, and the tenacious Charlene is different than anything we’ve ever seen her do before. It’s exciting to see an actress nowadays who isn’t content with finding one adjective to act and then carve themselves a niche, and Adams is quickly proving herself one of the most versatile actresses of our day.
But the knockout punch of “The Fighter” is the performance of Christian Bale, a totally authentic portrayal of a drug addict, former boxer, jealous trainer – and all simultaneously. He doesn’t act or perform as the real life Dickie Edlund so much as he becomes him and inhabits him. Every twitch, every word is meticulously planned by Bale, who slimmed down from his Batman physique to play the gaunt Dickie. He, along with Wahlberg and Adams, breath life into their characters so well that it breathes life into the movie as a whole. This enthusiastic entry into the annals of boxing films is so full of heartfelt emotion that it’s bound to be watched over and over more than any other. A- /