The Irish Stallion
I’ll admit I’m a sucker for a good sports movie, and The Fighter fits that bill. But it aims higher than your typical sports movie, to the point where the sport is somewhat incidental to the characters - more like a Rocky than a Rudy. And these really are interesting characters.
For those who don’t follow boxing, Micky Ward was a fairly famous welterweight about ten years ago. He had a reputation for entertaining fights (his bouts won the Ring Magazine Fight of the Year three years in a row), and fought three epic fights against the late Arturo Gatti.
Micky is the half-brother of Dicky Ecklund, the star middleweight of the ’70s who once fought (and lost – though he knocked him down) Sugar Ray Leonard for the World Title. Dicky became a crack addict in the ’80s and ’90s, and was even the subject of an HBO documentary about crack addiction.
The plot sticks pretty close to all of these true events, leaving out some of Ward’s tougher post-comeback losses for the sake of sports movie glory. But that’s fine. David O Russell (Three Kings, Flirting with Disaster) adeptly manages to balance all of the sports movie cliches with a personal drama about an unstable family. The film loses a bit of dramatic momentum in the last third, after the family has worked out most of their issues and Micky makes his march to the title, but it’s forgivable. The first hour and a half is riveting stuff.
Mark Wahlberg doesn’t have that much to do as the ever-shit-upon morose Micky, but he does a solid job of keeping the guy human as opposed to a one-dimensional emotional punching bag. But Christian Bale knocks it out of the park as Dicky, and proves he is just about the only young actor (maybe with Ed Norton and Robert Downey) worthy of the DeNiro/Hackman/Nicholson mantle. And Melissa Leo, who I’d heard good things about (in her award-winning turn a few years ago in Frozen River) but never really seen in a substantial part, is riveting and scary-hilarious as the demented mother of both boys. It’s a nomination-worthy performance in my estimation.
I first became aware of The Fighter doing a movie preview article for the site a few years ago, back when Darren Aronofsky was attached to direct. At the time, his two upcoming projects were listed as The Wrester and The Fighter. I remember thinking that these were particularly unimaginative titles (what I really thought was that they were retarded, but I’m trying to be more politically correct).
Looking back though, I think the titles for both movies are perfect. Both of these movies are dominated by figures defined by what they do. In The Wrestler, The Ram’s inability to find an identity outside of his wrestling ultimately proves to be his demise. That trait is underlined by Marisa Tomei’s stripper being hyper-vigilant about separating her personal life from her professional one, and therefore being able to lead a somewhat normal existence.
In The Fighter, it’s even more pronounced. Micky Ward’s entire family is defined by boxing. His brother Dicky is stuck in a timewarp to 1977 when he knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard, and is training Micky. His mother is his manager. When Micky fights, the whole family gets paid, all earning their living off of his back. Eventually, everyone in the movie, even his comparitavely level-headed girlfriend, become appendages of the Micky Ward experience.
An that’s the ultimate tragedy of The Fighter. It’s difficult to imagine the path for Micky will lead to more enlightenment than that of The Ram, even though Micky achieved more career success.
It’s not perfect. The end is a little anti-climactic, and the boxing isn’t particularly stirring, especially for a movie about a guy considered one of the most entertaining fighters of recent years. However, the great performances and family drama make it a solid watch.
Dan’s verdict: B-