The Fighter is everything it claims to be and perhaps a lot more – a boxing movie, a biographical sports drama, the story of a dysfunctional family and the woes of crime, drug addiction and failed dreams as incendiary for bad decisions. This film is both commanding and held in reserve, first and foremost a character study surrounded by exhilarating performances and notable for Christian Bale’s startling transformation into a has been boxer and crack addict. The film is based on the true story of professional boxer “Irish” Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his older half-brother Dicky (Bale) and their various self-determined trials by fire in and out of the ring. To suggest that The Fighter is just another boxing movie would miss the quiet tragedy personified with unflinching attention by director David O. Russell. The fact that the movie is about two troubled boxers seems like an overstatement much like relegating Goodfellas to a film about the nefarious mob.
The Fighter marks the third time director David O. Russell has worked with Mark Wahlberg and puts both in good company with an impressive list of producers on the project. Darren Aronofsky, David Hoberman, and Bob & Harvey Weinstein are among a dozen others who brought the film together. Others have noted that many of Hollywood’s top talent were attached to the project at one time or another, but this seems hardly interesting given what O. Russell has accomplished. The Fighter was nominated for 7 Academy Awards and ultimately won for Best Supporting Actor (Christian Bale) and Best Supporting Actress (Melissa Leo). While it would be impossible not to acknowledge that this film operates in the familiar territory of Oscar gold winning films like Rocky, Raging Bull and Million Dollar Baby in the not so distant past, it manages to stand on its own with pace and purpose. We don’t so much as arrive at the ending as maneuver there, obstacles like sibling rivalry, family politics, and drug abuse ever-present motivators for characters teetering on the precipice of changing against the threat of staying the same forever.
The Fighter is a true story about real people who seem at times to revel in everydayness so much so that we feel like we are visiting with people we know. We know the gritty details of this world because they are not so different from our own, the verisimilitude so thick at times as to mire down but never to the point of sentimentality. In a time when movies use green screen like a drug that never runs out or special effects to mask the reality of reality, The Fighter is oddly as comfortable in the ring as out of it where confrontations are not always resolved with gloves on. It is simply impossible to miss the palpable pain in these characters, informed as much as defined by actors who spent years preparing for these roles. Wahlberg spent four years training to become Micky Ward and Bale is reported to have lost 30 pounds for his part. Melissa Leo is frighteningly driven, wide eyes and blonde hair more like a crown of thorns as she navigates and manipulates with deft precision. Everyone is out for something, least of which is humanity.
The Fighter resonates days afterwards. It is easy to divert criticism, to stave off feelings that crystalline character studies and snapshot dramas cannot achieve the sense of escapism so hungered for these days. Blockbusters are evocative and effective in detachment because they transport us to far away and often-imagined places with characters that are not us but resemble, however minimally, ourselves. Concept films are less concerned with truthful emotional expressions and believable real-world scenarios which allows for intimate films cemented in places we know because we feel them involving people more like us than not. We end up rooting for these characters to win the race of life, to make it off the doomed planet not by means of space craft or futuristic transporters. We connect with characters like these because like them we want to be able to face our own demons, overcome similar obstacles we can relate to, and in the end it is better to have spent time together knowing it is ok to lose sometimes because winning is the easy part.