December 22, 2010
The Fighter (2010) ***
Directed by David O. Russell
The Fighter (2010)- Story about as generic as the film's title. Russel's direction doesn't live up to the talent on screen. Good film. ***/5
Yes, The Fighter is a good film; yes, it's well made; absolutely, it has some of the best performances of the year. Overall, though, I have little respect for the film. There's little that distinguishes The Fighter from any number of formulaic sports movies like Rocky, Hoosiers or even something silly like The Mighty Ducks. The ending especially feels recycled almost verbatim from a Rocky movie with some number after its title. The final boxer is a jerk, refusing to even shake hands (or fist bump gloves) with Mark Wahlberg's Micky Ward. He's written with such animosity for absolutely no narrative reason except the audience has to want the guy to be beaten to a pulp. We don't know him, and if he wasn't such a brute, we would feel bad with each punch thrown in his general direction.
Herein lies a problem with most boxing movies. The sport too easily allows for "revenge" tropes within film narratives, and as such, the motivation isn't to win the sport. Instead, the bad guy is motivated to "hurt" the good guy. This has become cliched, and it's disingenuous to the fundamental virtue of the sport of boxing. If boxing is this destructive, then a documentary like Boxing Gym about saving kids from the streets through boxing would turn into an entirely different kind of film completely.
The Fighter is more consistently successful than a film like Black Swan, which is so ambitious that its failures are epic. Yet, Black Swan is a film that receives my favor because it's not simply presenting an archetype in a slick way using talented actors to elevate tired material to awards level consideration. Black Swan is trying desperately to be different. The Fighter, on the other hand, is trying desperately to be a good version of something all-too-familiar.
The Bah-ston accents fly in this "based on true life" tale of Micky Ward, a second tier boxer who is being held back by the coaching of his troubled brother Dicky (Christian Bale), a one-time A-lister who holds the distinction of being the only fighter to knock down Sugar Ray Leonard in the late 1970's. Dicky's not thinking straight for many reasons, but Micky feels obligated to keep him and their mother Alice (Melissa Leo) in charge of his career because they're family. After Micky is pulverized in a match in which he should never have taken part, he begins to rethink his future. His new girlfriend, a sassy bartender named Charlene, aggressively pushes Micky towards new coaching and management. Meanwhile, Dicky is arrested and jailed, allowing Micky to start with his new coach without really having to cut off his ties with his family. Upon release, when Dicky returns to Micky in a better condition than he was before, he expects to continue as his brother's manager. Charlene is pulling Micky in one direction while Dicky and Alice are pulling him in another. At that point, for the first time, Micky makes his own decision which might just alienate everyone in his life--or perhaps just the opposite.
Russell's direction is a real problem. There are way too many styles at play which don't effortlessly work together. At times, we're actually seeing an HBO documentary being filmed about Dicky, providing an almost mumblecore/neo-realist style which still hangs around even after the documentary filming ceases. Many scenes have Micky's family, which consists of about seven ridiculous looking sisters in their 20's and 30's who are pretty much indistinguishable from each other as characters, improvising dialogue, shrilly yelling continuously in a cacophony of tedium until a scripted line must be said. At that point, everyone suddenly stops talking, and, as a result, too many sloppy scenes clutter the narrative, ultimately exhausting the audience.
Once again, this is not a dull story, and a handful of excellent performances thankfully give The Fighter its heft. Wahlberg has never been a scene-chewing kind of an actor, and this time around, he's perfectly cast as the son/brother who allows others to take control of his life. His character can throw a punch, but inside he's a gentle soul, and Wahlberg wisely allows his natural acting style to match Mickey's passive personality. Thankfully, Wahlberg never chooses to play at Mickey's weaknesses. As such, Mark Wahlberg gives one of the quietest and best performances of his career.
Amy Adams seems like the sort of mousy actress who can only play mousy characters like the mousy nun she played in Doubt. Here, Adams plays against type as an aggressive, tough-as-nails Boston barmaid who won't take crap from anyone. Believe it or not, Adams rises up to the challenge. Charlene isn't the most pleasant or even likable character in the world, and Adams is more than willing to allow her character's gaudiness to show through. On paper, Charlene is a bit one note, and Adams' performance is similarly somewhat limited, but I think many have been or will be surprised that Adams can hit this note so well. In a million years, I never would have thought of Amy Adams in this role. Similarly, Melissa Leo is a lot of fun to watch as Alice. She gives the sort of over the top performance that this material needs. Alice is an exaggeration of a character, and Leo, who was excellent in Frozen River, nails the sort of role that many more established actresses in Hollywood would have killed to play.
The real standout performance belongs to Christian Bale as Dicky. Bale is one of those actors who takes his craft so seriously that he has been known to give some pretty awful performances in films like Public Enemies and Terminator: Salvation. Even his performances as Batman could have registered more. That being said, everyone knows that Bale has it in him to be better than anyone else working in film today. His role as Dicky in The Fighter is perhaps the first performance since Rescue Dawn or even American Psycho that signifies itself as solid evidence for Bale's almost unmatched abilities. He's an electric presence on screen, and yet, his none-too-subtle turn as Dicky feels completely real from beginning to end. Bale has never looked so comfortable on screen. This could be the role that gives Bale his first Oscar, and with Bale's abilities, I wouldn't be surprised if there are many more in his future. I do think Geoffrey Rush is just as good (if not better) in The King's Speech, but if Bale wins on Oscar night, I won't be upset one bit. Without Christian Bale, The Fighter would probably not be worth your time.
The Fighter is a movie that should give its casting director a bonus check for its success. The performances elevate a trite script and pedestrian direction into something quite respectable. I think I would have responded to this movie even more had I felt like screenwriters Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson and director Russell didn't find their film by rummaging through overused boxing movie bromides. A movie with this much awards consideration ought to push the envelope even an inch.