Fighting Family

One of the reasons that this is the most wonderful time of the year is that studios are finally releasing some of their finest films for Oscar consideration. It’s not that great films haven’t already released earlier this year (think Social Network or Winter’s Bone, for example), it’s just that a rush of them tend to emerge around this time of year. Combined with the not-so-Oscar-worthy Holiday blockbusters, they make this time a rich movie-going experience. The highlight of the season thus far, and one of the best films of the year, has to be The Fighter.

The Fighter tells the true story of welterweight boxer Micky Ward’s (Mark Wahlberg) rise to the world championship. Non-boxing fans take heart, the majority of the film doesn’t take place in the ring. In fact, boxing scenes only make up a small fraction of the film, but when they do take place, they are some of the best choreographed fight scenes of the genre. The film focuses on Micky’s life outside the ring, particularly his relationship with his once-promising boxer brother, Dicky (Christian Bale), whose addiction to crack has ruined both his boxing career and is threatening to destroy his ability to train his younger brother. Micky’s mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), fails to see that despite her best intentions, her obsessions with Dickey’s past successes are damaging her ability to be an effective manager and promoter of Micky’s young career. Dicky and Alice never manage to enter Mickey into significant fights and inadvertently turn him into a stepping stone for other fighters. Along the way, however, Micky meets and falls for Charlene (Amy Adams), a bartender who sees his promise but also the roadblock that is his family. When Dicky returns from a stint in prison, he finds a more focused younger brother who, with Charlene’s encouragement, finally stands up for himself. With new management and a more mature relationship with his family, Mickey goes on to claim the welterweight title.

To critique The Fighter for being too predictable, as some critics have done, is about as shortsighted a review as possible. On the other hand, viewers who did not know about Micky Ward beforehand might find the broader narrative a bit formulaic. However, to simply focus on the rise, fall, and rise of Micky’s boxing career also misses the point as director David O. Russell has created an engaging film that benefits from rich, deeply drawn characters and the subtleties of their relationships with each other. The film benefits from a great soundtrack that enhances the character’s ups and downs. The way in which Russell employs archival footage of Dickey’s bout with Sugar Ray Leonard and re-creates Micky’s fights using the same cameras that HBO used to film the originals adds a visual depth and complexity to the film that many boxing (and sports) movies lack.

Charlene (Amy Adams) and Dicky (Christian Bale) argue about Micky's future.

Most boxing movies also lack a character as compelling as Dicky or a performance as engrossing as Bale’s. I was hooked on this character before I even laid eyes on him as Russell has the audience hear him before we see him. Bale captures Dicky’s restless taunting and glory-days-reflecting, all enhanced by his addiction to crack, so effectively that it made me forget I was watching an actor at work. Fortunately for us viewers, Bale has to battle with Leo and Adams for command of the scenes they share as the two female leads give commanding performances. Leo once again proves her chameleon-like abilities while Adams completely nails a tough-as-nails New Englander, a role that is certainly a far cry from the put-together princesses and pseudo-princesses she has plaid thus far. I’m not ignoring Wahlberg’s performance here, which is more than fine, it’s just that it pales in comparison to these three.

One of the film’s main themes is its focus on family. In a scene frequently shown in trailers, Micky tells his family that he is the one fighting in the ring, not Alice, Dicky, or Charlene. However, his confidence in his own abilities, strong though they may be, briefly ignores the fact that he actually needs his family to succeed. In fact, in the same scene just a few moments later, he tells Charlene that he cannot win without Dicky in his corner. What makes this realization and reality so compelling is that the family Micky needs is one of the more dysfunctional families you’re likely to encounter. Of course, we’re all likely to see something or someone of our own families in Micky’s. In the end, The Fighter seems to argue that no matter how dysfunctional they may be, we need our families and cannot escape that need no matter how hard we try.

Alice (Melissa Leo) has the intentions but not the means to manage her son's boxing career.

Another strength of the The Fighter is its willingness to not shy away from Dicky’s addiction to crack. It clearly presents the destructiveness of drug abuse and how quickly it can overtake a person’s life. Dicky sums up the feelings of addiction and the appeal of crack use better than any therapist, specialist, or psychiatrist. Though Dicky has comedic moments (particularly his attempts to make it seem like he has not been at the crack house, even when his family goes there to find him), they are tainted with feelings of desperation, confusion, and failure. Dicky hasn’t so much become a shell of his former self but rather a ruin, and Bale never makes him feel like a stereotypical drug-addicted has been.

The Fighter truly is one of the best boxing films ever made…if not the best. I have always wished that I could have seen Rocky in theaters. Folks who did tell me that audiences members stood up and cheered as if they were watching a live boxing match. No one stood up during The Fighter, but I did hear a few reserved cheers and a few rounds of applause. The Fighter is an uplifting, inspirational film that shines so brightly because it vividly captures the bleakness of the surroundings out of which Micky needed lifting.

The Fighter (115 mins) is rated Rated R for language throughout, drug content, violence and some sexuality and is in theaters everywhere.

The film concludes with a reference to the three fights that took place between Ward and Arturo Gotti after Ward won the championship. Here are some highlights from those fights.