The Fighter ****½
It was only a couple of years ago that Mark Wahlberg’s career seemed to be in a downward spiral from which he would not be able to escape with 2008 film The Happening and Max Payne failing to deliver a response to be proud of in terms of box office takings or critical acclaim. It’s amazing how much things can change in two years, isn’t it.
Last year’s comedies Date Night and The Other Guys established Wahlberg as a very promising comedy performer and now he is the star of one of the major contenders in this year’s awards race, The Fighter. While, aside from a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama, Wahlberg’s performance itself has not been receiving any awards attention, the film as a whole is getting much attention from the awards bodies, having already won Golden Globes for supporting players Christian Bale and Melissa Leo and being up for seven gongs at this year’s impending Academy Awards. Not only is The Fighter a film that looks set to really give Mark Wahlberg’s career a shot in the arm but it looks to do the same for director David O. Russell, who has made numerous well received films in the past, just not ones that were well received at the box office, his reputation being one for films that are a bit different as demonstrated by the likes of Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees. Russell was not the first choice to direct this film. Having joined the film production in 2005 and serving as a producer on the film, Wahlberg has had a very active role in the development of the project and under his guidance, two other directors have either been approached or attached to direct the film prior to Russell coming on board. Wahlberg’s initial hope had that been that Martin Scorsese might take the reins, citing his classic film Raging Bull as a source of inspiration, but Scorsese decided to pass as he was not really interested in directing another boxing film while his replacement Darren Aronofsky – who, interestingly directed The Wrestler and whose current film Black Swan is another major contender at this year’s Oscars – also dropped out to do the currently aborted Robocop remake and of course Black Swan (although he is still credited as an executive producer due to the contributions he made to the film before departing). It was after this that Russell came on board although somewhat reluctantly on the part of Wahlberg. After Christian Bale came on as a supporting player following Wahlberg asking him to take part – they happened to know each other through their daughters being pupils at the same elementary school – Bale suggested that Russell be brought on to direct although Wahlberg, despite having worked with Russell on two occasions – in both those aforementioned films by the director – and being friends with him, was somewhat uncomfortable with it due to the harrowing experience he had while making Three Kings, only relenting because Bale stated that he wanted to work with Russell. Just like the true life events portrayed in the film itself the rest, as they say, is history and the film has become one of the most buzzed about contenders in this year’s awards race. But does The Fighter truly deserve to go home with the title?
Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) was once a boxer with a genuine shot at the title but these days, rather than the contender he used to be, he is a washed-up crack addict whose dreams of a big comeback are sullied by his addiction. Now, his younger half-brother Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) has become the family hope in the ring and it is Dicky’s job to pass on everything he knows as Micky’s trainer while their mother Alice (Melissa Leo) acts as his manager and their seven sisters – ‘Little Alice’ (Melissa McMeekin), Cathy (Bianca Hunter), Cindy (Erica McDermott), Donna (Jill Quigg), Gail (Dendrie Taylor), Phyllis (Kate B.O’Brien) and Sherri (Jenna Lamia) – also work to support him. Micky’s loyalty towards his family is unwavering but such loyalty hardly seems reciprocated with all but his father George (Jack McGee) seeming to consider their own selfish interests ahead of his and Dicky, in particular, failing in his duties as trainer due to his addiction. After he loses the latest in a long series of fights, however, and Dicky lands himself in prison, Micky decides that he has had enough. Fed up with feeling humiliated, he decides to hang up his gloves, but pretty and tough barmaid Charlene (Amy Adams) persuades him otherwise, giving him the courage he needs to step away from his destructive family and make a break for victory on his own. With a new manager, Sal Lanano (Frank Renzulli), and a new trainer, Mickey O’Keefe (playing himself), in tow, Micky takes his shot at the big time. Can his family give him the space he needs to flourish, or can they reconcile themselves to work together and make him even stronger?
With The Fighter we have a film that is, for once, actually “based on a true story” rather than simply inspired by one and a lot of attention has been put into making something that truly does paint a realistic portrayal of the real life people upon whom the characters are based and that creates a truly authentic representation of the world within which these characters live, although it is likely that many details will pass unnoticed by the casual viewer. For instance, the use of real locations in place of sets creates a sense of authenticity for the environments that the film’s events take place in and really grounds these events in reality, Art Ramalho’s Gym, the place where Micky trains, being the actual Lowell West End Gym where the real Micky Ward trained and still being a functioning boxing gym today and the character of Mickey O’Keefe, Micky’s trainer, actually being the real Mickey O’Keefe, who trained Ward in reality, not an actor playing a part (the real Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund also put in appearances during the film’s closing credits). Other details are even more obscure such as a couple of lines in the ending fight between Micky Ward and Shea Neary where announcer Jim Lampley says “Ward nods as if to say, “C’mon, c’mon let’s fight!...Just imagine if you’d bought a ticket”, two lines that are taken directly from Lampley’s commentary in the 9th round of the May 18th, 2002 fight between Micky Ward and Arturo Gatti. Also, all the fight scenes as well as scenes from a documentary about crack addiction that a camera crew is filming Dicky for – which is a real, award winning HBO documentary entitled High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell and whose director, Richard Farrell, actually appears in this film, essentially playing himself, as one of the cameramen shooting the documentary – were shot with cameras from the 1990's era, something which makes these scenes look like something that was shot during the mid 1990’s rather than now. Even the two leads have gone to great lengths to ensure that not only do their performances seem authentic but their bodies look the part as well, Christian Bale clearly having lost a lot of weight in order the achieve the very thin frame of Dicky Eklund, the character truly looking like a washed up crack addict complete with a whacked out look to his eyes, while Mark Wahlberg has been training for his role every day since 2005, his body truly looking like that of a boxer and all his moves being spot on, something that is also true of Bale. This considered then it is perhaps ironic that the fight scenes are not as good as you might expect them to be. It’s not that they don’t seem authentic, as the use of the actual cameras that would have been used to film the real fights lends the fight scenes the look of an actual televised event, or even that the boxing moves are off, all the boxing moves being performed perfectly, but, despite being suitably intense and quite brutal, there just seems to be something missing from these scenes, the sense of threat towards Micky that should exist in these scenes not quite being there. This isn’t too big a flaw though as the character based stuff is the real focus of the film. As well as being extremely authentic in virtually every facet, this film also makes for a very engaging drama, with well developed characters and well written dialogue that allow for some very compelling conversation scenes and clashes that are packed with dramatic tension and the occasional moment of humour that fits in perfectly with the real world setting. The fights may not make the impact that they should but that character stuff really excels and the acting is largely responsible for this. Christian Bale’s performance is electric, with him doing a pitch perfect accent and absolutely nailing his character’s cocky attitude and arrogant swagger. He completely convinces as a washed up and drugged up character and does a superb dumbfounded expression, making for a character whose drug induced highs make seem like a complete asshole while his lows show a more damaged individual – in particular, his portrayal of the effects of drug withdrawal seem intense and realistic. As much as the character’s self interest seems to cloud him much of the time, we never doubt that Dicky genuinely cares for the welfare of his brother. Bale puts every part of himself into his performance, his body language portraying his self important cockiness while his eyes simultaneously create a vibe of craziness and something gentler, somewhat akin to brotherly love. After all, this isn’t so much a film about boxing but one about family and the love between brothers. A fairly convincing brotherly dynamic exists between Bale and Wahlberg and the same is kind of true of their trainer-trainee dynamic although there is one key thing that prevents the overall film from being completely perfect – Wahlberg himself. It’s not that Mark Wahlberg isn’t good here because he actually is very good but, playing a straight character against Bale’s more over the top performance, he comes across as far from award worthy, something that is evidenced by his lack of nominations, and he is in fact upstaged by all three of the main supporting players – Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo – with the excellent acting elsewhere almost making him not look so good by comparison. As the seemingly self absorbed and entirely stubborn Alice, Leo truly is excellent and Amy Adams, so often associated with sweeter more vulnerable roles, here proves very capable as a more tough and streetwise character, both actresses proving very deserving of the award nominations they have earned. In general the acting is hard to fault but with Wahlberg not being able to keep up with the other cast members (and the fight scenes not entirely hitting the mark) the overall film falls short of perfection. So, The Fighter is an extremely well made and very engaging film that, in spite of the tremendous attention to detail, fails to be quite as good as it so clearly could be. Any gripes are only minor though and this is still a film that throws its punches thick and fast and is without a doubt one of the stronger contenders in this year’s awards race.
Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)