I love boxing movies. I don’t know why, but I just love them. The tried and true formula of a blue collar underdog with family drama making his/her dream come true just gets to me sometimes. The Fighter is a boxing drama that recycles previous story lines before it, but while so many elements of the film work on so many levels, it’s also those same elements that hinder its true success.
Audiences remember Rocky, Raging Bull, and Million Dollar Baby because they had unforgetable, and in the case of Stallone and DeNiro, iconic leading characters. Even before I ever saw Rocky, I knew Rocky Balboa, and his “Yo, Adrian” parlance. The Fighter’s biggest problem is that it’s lead character, Micky (Mark Wahlberg), lacks personality definition. Now, this is certainly not the fault of Wahlberg, who, as anyone knows, is a very talented (and sinfully sexy) actor. However, his lack of character development allows (forces?) the entire film to be helmed by the supporting cast. Never before in a film have I seen the supporting cast truly takeover the reigns in such a way that completely outshines the lead performer, and in that case, The Fighter does have a sore spot. Luckily for the film, and for the audience, the supporting cast is nothing short of amazing.
Almost immediately we are introduced and given the rundown of Micky’s very large family, consisting of a gaggle of sisters and half sisters, and one half brother, Dicky (Christian Bale), who is undoubtedly the apple of mom, Alice’s (Melissa Leo), eye. Dicky, a failed boxer and coke addict is attempting to give Micky the chance he never had by being his trainer under the watchful eye of matriarch Alice. Alice’s denial, her love for Dicky, and the familial power she yields is enough to keep Micky quietly submissive when it comes to the handling of his own career. It’s only until Micky meets his Adrian in a bartender named Charlene (Amy Adams), that he suddenly gets a voice…albeit a small one.
It may appear that Charlene is guiding Micky to make his own decisions, but in fact, she merely becomes another Alice, pointing him in the direction that she sees fit. In any other film, Micky would need to make a choice between his family, his lover, and himself, but, without giving too much away, he gets out of making some difficult decisions purely by virtue of a neatly wrapped-up ending. At the end, we feel like we’ve been through the wringer with Dicky and Alice, and we can appreciate their growth much more that Micky’s.
I believe Mark Wahlberg’s performance is intentional to a certain degree, not because there is a lack of material for him to work with, but because if anyone has ever known a person subsumed by their family, that’s how they would act. What voice or personality can a person contribute when for most of their adult life they have depended on others to write their story? If anything, Micky/Wahlberg provides the perfect canvas for the other members of the family to sound off on, and what the audience gets in return is golden.
This movie made my top ten of the year (see the full list, along with Ryan’s, tomorrow!) because of the outstanding performances of Melissa Leo, Christian Bale, and Amy Adams. Leo’s Alice reminds me so much of the tough as nails mob wives made iconic by Goodfellas and The Sopranos; women who have spent their lives perfecting an image supported by a life of lies that teeters on the brink of destruction. There was a lot of talk surrounding Christian Bale’s dramatic physical transformation to play Dicky, and if the cost of Bale’s health is paid with Oscar gold, the risk may have been worth it. Bale embodies the mannerisms of the real life Dicky Eklund so well, it’s almost ridiculous. The bodily ticks, the rambling speech, the facial flutters…it’s really something to watch.
The Fighter as a whole, despite its flaws, is an entertaining movie that takes its place among the sports film elite.