Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Fighter (2010)


Perhaps it is because a bout can be easily analogized to life itself that we find ourselves gravitating to the many tales of overcoming odds found in boxing. They may, at times, flirt with predictability, but in the hands of any storyteller of note, even the most straightforward tales of success can find welcome ears. Enter David O. Russell, the talented writer-director behind the stylistic Three Kings and controversial I Heart Huckabees.

Teaming up for the third time with Mark Wahlberg, the dynamic duo bring together the story of Micky Ward, an Irish boxer hailing from Lowell, Massachusetts. He's lost several of his recent fights, and seems on a downward spiral. His half-brother, and trainer, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) is an ex-boxer himself, famous in their hometown for his one-time match against Sugar Ray Leonard, and a struggling crack addict. Their respective mother, Alice Ward (Melissa Leo), serves as manager for Micky and seems lost in love for the heyday of her eldest son, Dicky.

Together, Dicky and Alice create an overbearing situation in which Micky simply cannot win. If he veers away from them, he's seen as betraying the family. But if he sticks with them, eventually their self-destructive ways will take him down with them.

Condensing a series of events which took place over a near ten year period, THE FIGHTER chronicles Micky Ward's efforts at finding a balance between the two extremes facing him. When Charlene (Amy Adams), a local barmaid, enters the picture as his romantic interest, the pressure on Ward to finally step up and take control of his life hits a boiling point. As he rightly notes, he's 'not getting any younger' and what he does now must be for him, and entirely about him. No longer can his life be lived vicariously through those around him.

Mark Wahlberg has never been the most dynamic actor, and as such he plays Micky Ward on an even keel. Never one to 'blow up' or 'break down,' Wahlberg takes Ward through his series of emotions with declarative statements and a sympathy inducing sad puppy face. Wahlberg's restrained performance turns out to be a blessing in disguise for The Fighter as it puts the career defining performances of Bale and Leo on a pedestal to be admired.

From the pencil-thin body shape and twitchy eyes to the manner of speak, and exaggerated personality, Bale takes Dicky Eklund off the screen and right into your chair. Seemingly hyperbolic, the staunch knowledge that Eklund is in fact the way he is portrayed supplies added need to praise Bale. Bale's upbeat Eklund provides the film with a much needed complex character through which we can siphon humor and sadness during the film's intermediary moments between fights. Leo's constantly pursed face, and controlling persona as Alice supplies the movie with someone who is not so much a villian, but a sympathetic focal point for any rage the audience feels. Her destructive obsession with an idealistic life in which Dicky doesn't do drugs and Micky loves every decision she makes forces the very things she wishes to avoid upon the ones she loves.

The rest of the supporting cast step up to the caliber of the aforementioned and deliver their performances with steadfast determination. Adams is particularly strong, but seldom asked to do a lot other than be sexy, and occasionally angry/melancholy (both of which she excels at). It may be a bit cruel to say this, but the roles of the sisters rely as much on hair as they do on their respective acting chops. In the confines of the entire film, they work alongside Micky's father (Jack McGee), and occasionally Dicky, to provide a bit of comic relief.

Coasting over many of the major underlying issues, Russell does a tactful job of keeping The Fighter sentimental without forcing major waterworks. Placing the focus squarely on the actors, Russell shows considerable confidence in their ability to carry a film. A surprise considering Russell's prior films are often recognizable for his vibrant style, blending imagery and real world in presenting the tale. During some of the montages, that picturesque quality presents itself in an effort to show the passage of time and events Russell doesn't feel the need to harp on.

If there's one component of The Fighter I really feel as if O. Russell and company whiff, it's time. Many of the events that transpire occurred over years in real life. The long, winding road aided in the deconstructing of Ward's world and presented the true lengths to which he had to go for a viable title shot. I know in cinema terms you can't be expected to traverse years without losing some of the moments in between, but I feel as if here the emotional connection molded between the audience and main characters would have benefited greatly.

Now, much has been made of Russell's decision to use an HBO presentation style when shooting the fight scenes, particularly the final match-up. Personally, I found it neither overtly beneficial, nor necessarily detracting. There's something to be said for keeping ourselves as observers in those final scenes, and only bearing brief witness to the ringside conversations. As well, I felt as if putting us into the middle of the fight, and the pain in each punch only works if that is a crucial component to your story (such as can be found in Cinderella Man). Here, the hits Ward takes in the ring matter little in comparison to the ones he takes out of it. In that respect, The Fighter delivers exactly what it intends and exceeds admirably.

11 better thoughts:

Cheri Passell said...

I'm dying to know what the rest of the real family thought of the film - didn't exactly make them look attractive. Have you read anything?

The Mad Hatter said...

We must be getting to the year's best stuff with all the high 8's on L.I.E these days!

It's a little odd that this film works despite it's breaks from structure - protagonist who's dwarfed by the supporting players, the decision to show the fight scenes through TV footage, and as you mentioned the protraction of time.

Curiously though, it's all of those decisions to break the rules instead of follow them that make this whole story feel just off-kilter enough to avoid cliche.

Weird idn't it?

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

This seems to be the movie of choice today. I might have to go see it soon.

Univarn said...

@Cheri No I haven't, but I'd be curious as well - unfortunately for them they're not a key component and will likely receive minimal media contact.

@Mad To be honest, it's a rather big rarity. Even last year I many of the films in my top 10 didn't scrape higher than a 7.75 out of me.

As for your question, I think it helped a bit. There's not much Russell could have done to avoid cliche, but I think the performances did more than he did.

@AlexJ I recommend it - could be a bit slow in between fights for you but the performances carry it onward.


Castor said...

Nicely written Uni! Glad you liked it. It's the fact that it doesn't conform to the rules of the genre that makes this movie stand out above the pack. It could so easily have been focused on Mickey Ward's journey wit the relationships barely explored but it would have made for a truly formulaic and average (at best) story.

Candice Frederick said...

very well written as usual. i do agree that the time dicky spent in jail probably was condensed and the movie did make the story seem like it bwas only taking place over about a month. minor critique but i can certainly see how that's a flaw in an otherwise good film, especially a biopic at that.

Brittani Burnham said...

This is a damn good review. Wow, but your reviews always are.

I really enjoyed this. I'm glad Christian Bale is finally getting the praise he deserves.

CMrok93 said...

It's predictable, but entertaining from beginning to end, with some of the best acting of the whole year. Bale better win an Oscar!

Univarn said...

@Castor Well I think saying it doesn't conform is a bit of a stretch - I would say Russell plays around with it a bit more than you'd expect. However, I'm surprised how many reviews decided to note the hour length between bouts. If you watch lots of boxing movies - there's often long periods between fights.

@Candice Thanks - on some level I expect biopics to take place over years with some condensation in favor of emotional stretching.

@Brittani I am incredibly humbled by that, thank you very much. I think Bale has always gotten praise, just not Oscar level from the media.

@CMrok I was a bit skeptical of Bale, but willing to buy it until they showed the clip of the real Dicky Eklund at the end - did he ever nail it or what!

Lesya Khyzhnyak said...

The greatest thing about The Fighter is its cast. I liked the way you allotted place for each character/actor in the review. I hope Bale will get his Oscar soon. I was also surprised by Adams, she's one of my favorites, but she always plays kind or funny people. This role is what I always wanted to see her in.

Movielocker said...

Can´t wait to see Bale again and hearing a non-Batman voice coming out of him... feel free to visit the blog I´m writing for-
Best wishes and a beautiful day,


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