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'The Fighter' Movie Review: David O. Russell Directs a Knockout With Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale

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The Fighter tells the real life story of fighter “Irish” Mickey Ward’s struggles inside and outside the ring.The Fighter Movie

Yes, in essence, The Fighter is a man against the odds movie you’ve seen a million times before (*cough* Rocky) Yes, it’s presented as shameless Oscar bait in a season where the academy starts to keep an acute eye out for quality cinema. Who cares?! If a director and cast is expert enough take something overly familiar and spin it into something fresh and spectacular, it’s still worth the audience’s time. The Fighter is such a movie.

David O Russell’s inspirational drama may be set in the boxing world, but the real ring he creates surrounds the borders of Lowell Massachusetts. All of the players are hard hitters too.

First, there’s Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), a former boxing great that has fallen since his glory days in the 80’s. Now a desolate crack addict, he leeches onto brother Mickey (Mark Wahlberg), an up and coming fighter who has a shot at the title.  Dicky takes on the role of Mickey’s “trainer”, but the truth is Mickey winds up training alone due to his brother’s “extracurricular activities”. Not far behind is their mother Alice (Melissa Leo), a rough-edged controlling manager who clearly is out to make sure her younger son doesn’t turn into the failure that Dicky has become. Consumed by greed, she pushes Mickey into fights with opponents that have over twenty pounds on him. Sounds shi**y, but as she indicated, “If you don’t fight, no one gets paid”

Rounding out the portrait of dysfunction is Mickey himself, overly meek and used by everyone around him. Fiercely loyal to his brother Dicky, he refuses to fire him, despite several offers from certified, experienced managers who want to make something of the fighter before old age sets in. When Mickey meets the spitfire bar waitress Charlene (an excellent Amy Adams), she helps give him the confidence necessary to step out on his own after Dicky is put into jail. Of course, nothing is that easy, and soon Mickey’s mother and sisters are in full force trying to pull him back into the negative cycle again.

The Fighter is, first and foremost, an exceptionally acted piece. I would be hard pressed to label any one of these performances greater than the other as they all carry weight and purpose equally. However, most critics will likely tip their hat to Bale, whose portrayal of a degenerate crack addict is astonishing. Bale has the look down (he dropped significant weight for the role) but the layers of genuine desperation he lends to Dicky are both uncomfortable to watch and mesmerizing at the same time. Wahlberg underplays it significantly, but clearly holds his own in a big way. His Mickey is a humble, sweet, soft-spoken hero that’s highly endearing. Amy Adams is a hoot as the firecracker girlfriend Charlene, filled with more trash talking one-liners than one can count. Finally, Melissa Leo, as Mickey’s mother, is pitch perfect, a classless woman trying to control everything around her, even though it’s falling apart.

Director David O. Russell has more than a sturdy grasp on the story and the drama in the film. He manages to keep the predictable story lively and entertaining. His attention to character and ability with actors is brilliantly showcased here as well. The only flaw lies in the actual sequences set in the ring, which, ironically, generate the least amount of heat. The rousing final match, for example, is wildly anticlimactic. Not a clap or a cheer could be found within the entire screening audience.

Still, none of that detracts from the experience of The Fighter. This is another example of mainstream cinema done correctly. The acting is quality, the production polished, and the direction is fluid and assured. You’ll also walk away invested in these characters. Russell cares a great deal about them, even the ones who are less than saints, and chances are, so will you. The Fighter is, dare I say, a knockout.

Contact Jim Teti at jteti@philly2philly.com

Photo: Paramount Pictures