All fun and games till someone loses an eye
Boxing seems to be the perfect sport for the movies. Whilst football in its variations has provided the dramatic backdrop for films from Jerry Maguire to The Damned United to (ahem) The Blind Side, nothing encapsulates the rise of the underdog quite like a spot of pugilism. This isn’t team sport – this is one man against poverty/circumstance/prejudice. A woman who pushes him/supports him/begs him to give it up. And a fight to end all fights in the final reel. The majority of boxing movies seem to be based on true stories, thus giving even more pathos to the inevitable challenges our hero (or heroine – let’s not forget the excellent Million Dollar Baby) must overcome in the face of adversity. Add to this fascinating documentaries like the recent Tyson, where the misunderstood “monster” speaks softly and (mostly) articulately about all manner of subjects, and it’s little wonder there is a whole industry within an industry.
At first glance, The Fighter risked being an also-ran in this oeuvre, just another rise-to-the-top tale about someone most of us have never heard of: Micky Ward, a fighter in the mid-80s whose brother Dickie Eklund once knocked-out Sugar Ray Leonard, before descending into a white trash life of crack addiction. Micky has many obstacles to face if he is to reach the heights he aspires to, with his big brother/trainer in prison, an overbearing mother/manager (the brilliant Melissa Leo from Frozen River and soon to be seen in Conviction) and conflict with his family over his burgeoning relationship with barmaid/college-dropout Charlene (Amy Adams – prettier than Micky’s 6 ugly sisters, but eschewing Hollywood glamour for a healthy dose of social realism).
However, while the trajectory proves to be familiar, there are several things that make this movie a stand-out in its genre. Director David O. Russell (from the wonderful Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees) concentrates on the terrific characters bequeathed by the dysfunctional Ward-Eklund family, and gives his actors the roles of their lives. Mark Wahlberg is fine as Micky, a likeable, decent sort of fellow, but Christian Bale steals every scene as the off-the-rails Dickie. When you see footage during the end credits of the two brothers in recent times, you realise Bale’s performance is horrifying real and not at all hyperbolised. Adams is good, Leo is superb, and the supporting cast adds colour to every interaction.
Russell adds panache by shooting the documentary scenes and boxing bouts on grainy video, conjuring up an authenticity which mostly matches the occasional use of genuine footage. There are a few nice swirling shots à la Goodfellas, and despite my being a huge boxing fan, the fight scenes were mercifully minimal, serving only to advance the story rather than simply set the character up in a “this is what he does” way. That said, the fights are well-shot such that there were genuine edge-of-seat moments for me, and the audience knows enough by then to watch out for the “head-body-head-body” shot that we know might win our hero his title.
The Fighter marks itself out as focusing on good acting, the moral dilemmas inherent in family dynamics, and a well-told story, without hitting you between the eyes to make you appreciate it.