It’s probably a good thing that the trailer for The Fighter makes the movie look like a Rocky rip-off. Instantly, expectations are lowered into a cinematic vat with every other “last shot at greatness” boxing flick ever made. But this true story – about the life of “Irish” Micky Ward, a local Massachusetts boxer living in his brother’s shadow, his new gal and crazy family – is full of surprises.
Dicky Eklund (Bale) fought Sugar Ray Leonard in 1979 and knocked him down. Or Leonard tripped. Either way, Dicky’s rep as “the pride of Lowell” has turned him into a shambling wreck of a guy emaciated from crack cocaine and addicted to the limelight. He trains his level-headed half-brother Micky (Wahlberg) at the old gym but the pairing has only built Micky a rep as a loser, a “stepping stone,” the guy that other boxers use to climb up the ladder. Alice (Leo) is the big-haired stage mom managing her sons’ careers and waiting for the older brother’s comeback. Then there are the boisterous sisters that do little more than act as a foul-mouthed Greek chorus.
The whole lot of them is delusional. When a crew from HBO begins following the clan around, they never stop to consider it’s because Dicky’s a crackhead. When Micky meets sexy streetwise bartender Charlene (Adams), he finds someone that sees him for exactly what he is: a big-hearted putz being used by his family.
The strength of The Fighter is that it never takes sides. Sure, everyone is messed up in the head but they mean well. And even when the movie pulls it all together for a rousing finale, one never gets the sense it sold these folks out. They are who they are to the bitter end.
Kudos must go to the quartet of phenomenal performances. Bale completely disappears as the crack-addled do-gooder. He’s a live wire you can’t take your eyes off because you never know if he’s going to start a fight or fall asleep. Adams is tough and spirited. Her hard look means that she ain’t goin’ anywhere and hey, that’s love, ain’t it? Leo (Frozen River) continues her run of powerful roles as a mom who knows how to love her children the best she can but can’t see how that might not be a good thing. McGee (Rescue Me) is her henpecked husband, a guy who can take a frying pan thrown at him and still keep his dignity.
Finally, one would expect Wahlberg (also a producer) to do his soft-spoken tough guy thing but he manages to find something deeper in Micky Ward: a sense of confidence coupled with the desire to stop disappointing people. It’s a wonderfully subtle turn – well, as subtle as he can be slamming heads into bars. His bursts of street violence aren’t the result of anything to prove but out of a deep commitment to people he cares about.
The celebrated and controversial director Russell has been on the receiving end of some damning press (a fistfight with George Clooney on the set of Three Kings, a YouTube-able cursing match with Lily Tomlin on I Heart Huckabees). But in The Fighter, all the punching and cursing comes from the colorful citizens of Lowell, Mass. The film pulled down eight Oscar nominations; Bale and Leo won two of them.
PACKING A REALISTIC PUNCH: According to Wikipedia, The gym scenes were shot at one of the real-life facilities where Ward had trained. The boxing-match footage was created “in big, choreographed sections that were taken directly from Micky’s actual fights,” said Russell. “And we used the actual commentary from HBO’s Larry Merchant, Roy Jones Jr. and Jim Lampley.” Russell used “the actual cameras from that era. They were a sort of Beta camera that gave a very certain look, and we actually hired the director from HBO and his crew who had done those fights” to replicate them shot-for-shot. Mickey O’Keefe, Ward’s trainer-turned-police sergeant, was played by himself after being convinced by Wahlberg to take the role. (Paramount)
— DENNIS WILLIS