Review: Christian Bale Makes 'The Fighter' a Battle Worth Fighting
by Jeremy Kirk
December 22, 2010
From the very first shot of David O. Russell's The Fighter, you understand the dynamic between the two leads. Shot with an actual HBO camera crew, Christian Bale as Dicky Eklund - gaunt and jittery - sits and addresses the camera. Dicky is charismatic, jovial, and almost loud in the way he speaks about himself and the boxing career he once had and aims to have once again. His brother, 'Irish' Micky Ward, played by Mark Wahlberg, sits next to him. Micky on the other hand is quiet, demure, almost uncomfortable in the presence of his older brother. That star of this program, of this family, is Dicky. Any fame Micky aspires to achieve will be from the back seat of the car his brother drives, and the shadow he must contend with will be more challenging than any opponent he faces in the ring.
The Fighter is a film about boxing, but like all good sports movies, the pugilist at the heart of the story is fighting with so much more than gloved opponents. Russell's film is an inspiring one. Both prongs in this forked narrative, Dicky and Micky, are equal in the way and structure with which they are presented. Micky fights to break away from his family, a trashy, Boston-based group of individuals who seem to want fame for themselves no matter what it does to his physical being. Melissa Leo as the matriarch of this clan gives an engrossing and chameleon-like performance, nothing we aren't use to from the talented actress. Dicky fights with himself. A crack addict, he has a large hill to climb, and not making it could be the end of not only his career as a boxer but his livelihood.
With Bale in the role of Dicky and Wahlberg in the role of Micky, the film builds its dynamic ingeniously. Bale embodies the character he portrays with an allure that is mind-boggling. Dicky is no good. Anyone who pays attention is forced to see this, yet the character, and Bale's methodological drive guiding it, is fascinating. Micky, the shy one, can never be at the forefront of what is going on.
Unfortunately, the film itself captures this all too well, and Bale pulls so far ahead of Wahlberg in terms of audience cognizance that you can't help but wonder why you should care about Micky Ward at all. Once the story shifts, once Dicky finds himself behind bars and Micky begins his uphill battle into boxing rankings, a noticeable shift occurs. The true star of this inspirational story comes to light. The viewer is left to watch it unfold regardless where their interests lie.
When the love story between Micky and Charlene Fleming, a local played with arresting force by Amy Adams, begins, it takes a scene or two to build any real interest. These moments aren't particularly aided by Pamela Martin's wandering editing. A scene of Micky and Charlene in the same room together cuts to a shot of Micky driving to Charlene's house to pick her up. It's one major instance in a much larger film, one that is passably cut together, but it doesn't go unnoticed. Elsewhere, the film's editing is hit-or-miss at best. At one point, we are even subjected to a montage of Micky's opponents accompanied by Aerosmith's "Back in the Saddle," not exactly an inspired choice.
Sadly, Martin's editing and Russell's direction don't help the boxing moments here, either. Shot with the same cameras HBO utilizes in the fights they air, the matches have the look and feel you might expect watching them in your living room. It's a brilliant concept. One that is surprising to only see here for the first time on film. The technique mixed with Russell's eye for real-life boxing gives a pragmatic if not altogether exciting view of the sport. Most of the finishes are somewhat anti-climactic.
Discouraging editing and shaky montages notwithstanding, The Fighter achieves a successful level of nurturing to the story at hand. You feel for Micky and understand the bewildered situation he finds himself in. He is a man who loves his family despite their nature. He also realizes how close to greatness he is, how much he has within himself if he can find a happy medium between the life holding him down and the life he yearns for. Wahlberg is fine in his portrayal of Micky Ward, even if it is subdued to the point of unstated. He delves into the whiny Wahlberg from time to time, the one more suited for talking to plastic plants, but the care and respect he clearly has for the real-life boxer is clearly made out.
The real star of this film regardless of billing placement is Bale. Never an actor who shies from transformation, he looks and acts the part with a career-defining energy. He even brings out moments of sheer levity in the part, making moments such as Dicky launching himself from a second-story window to get away from his mother genuinely funny despite their hokey execution. In essence, Bale is a triumph in the midst of a film that never quite seems to be able to live up to what he has to offer.
The remainder of The Fighter is satisfactory. The family drama aspects achieve the level of enthrallment required. Even the more ludicrous and humorous aspects such as Dicky and Micky's flock of sisters, each one trashier and more ostentatious than the last, are unable to shake the drama at hand. The boxing scenes, thin and lacking of excitement as they are, still drive the narrative forward with an even hand. In the end, the real blow from The Fighter comes from Bale's performance, and no amount of Everlast red padding can dull when it hits you. It is truly a performance that makes the whole rest of the film worthwhile.
Jeremy's Rating: 7 out of 10