The Fighter
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The Fighter

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There have been many great movies about boxers, and what made them great was that they were not so much about the brutal sport itself but about the characters. Some have been based on real life characters, while others have been more emotionally engaging stories about underdogs triumphing against the odds or tragic figures.

There have been many great movies about boxers, and what made them great was that they were not so much about the brutal sport itself but about the characters. Some have been based on real life characters (Raging Bull, Somebody Up There Likes Me, The Hurricane), while others have been more emotionally engaging stories about underdogs triumphing against the odds or tragic figures (Million Dollar Baby, The Champ, Rocky). A fine addition to this impressive list is David O Russell’s The Fighter, which is as much about dysfunctional families, dreams, guilt, and redemption as it is about the sport.

The film is based on the story of Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), an aspiring welter weight boxer from the working class town of Lowell, Massachusetts. A perennial underdog Micky is being trained by his older half-brother Dicky (Christian Bale), a once promising boxer who lives on his past glories. A convicted felon and crack addict, Dicky is also a loose cannon and unreliable, and his volatile nature often lands Micky in trouble.

Micky tires of being used as a stepping stone by other boxers climbing the ranks, and starts to look beyond his possessive and intrusive family for more professional management. His decision causes a rift in his extended family, and especially upsets his manipulative mother Alice (Melissa Leo, from Frozen River), who presides over this freak show. Can Micky escape the tentacles of his feral, white trash family and achieve his dream of becoming world champion? Or will he allow his misguided loyalty towards his brother drag him down?

Russell has a reputation for being demanding and temperamental on the set, but he manages to draw superb performances from his cast. Leo is fantastic as the domineering harridan Alice, and her performance as the poisonous family matriarch will give Jackie Weaver’s sociopathic crime family matriarch a run for her money in the upcoming awards season. But whereas Weaver’s portrayal is more restrained and quietly menacing, Leo’s performance is more scenery chewing but just as effective. Wahlberg, who previously worked with Russell on the action thriller Three Kings and the offbeat comedy I Heart Huckabees, has convincingly beefed up for his role. He has obviously trained for the part, and consequently delivers his best performance since Boogie Nights.

It’s amazing how Bale can immerse himself inside his characters (consider how eerily gaunt he looked for his role in the psychological drama The Machinist), but he is absolutely riveting as bad boy Dicky. Even though Bale is four years younger than Wahlberg he is totally believable as his older brother, especially since he has a bald spot, receding hairline, gaunt and hunched look, and the twitchy energy of the addict.

Cast against type, Amy Adams brings a sexy quality to her role as Charlene, the potty mouthed bar tender and love interest, but her role seems underdeveloped compared to the three leads.

The Fighter is a labour of love for Wahlberg who has been trying to get the film off the ground for several years and he has found the perfect director in Russell, whose dynamic verite-style approach suits the material. The bruising, climactic boxing scenes have a superbly visceral quality to them and are superbly staged.