Sunday, January 9, 2011

Movie Review: The Fighter

The Fighter (2010)
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo
Directed By: David O. Russell

The title suggests there is only one fighter, but David O. Russell's film is centred on two brawlers -- one an up-and-coming star, the other a crack-addicted one-hit wonder. Most will understandably assume it's Mark Wahlberg's Mickey Ward who is the fighter of the title; however, it could just as easily refer to Christian Bale's Dickie Eklund, who must battle his demons to regain the respect he lost when he became a drug addict and faded from the boxing scene.

Based on a true story, the film is set in 1993 when Mickey is on the verge of becoming a boxing superstar in his own right. Holding him back is his manager mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), and his half-brother, Dickie, who enter Mickey into mismatched bouts that bring more physical pain than career gain. Dickie famously beat Sugar Ray Leonard in a 1978 fight that, even in 1993, remained controversial. Did Dickie actually outbox his famous opponent or did Sugar Ray simply trip and lose his footing? Still remembered as "the Pride of Lowell," the now-drug addled Dickie relives his brief former glory through his younger brother's rising star. It isn't until Mickey meets feisty bartender, Charlene (Amy Adams), that he begins to question whether or not his family might be toxic and preventing him from reaching his full potential.

This is Wahlberg's third go-around with director Russell (following 1999's Three Kings  and 2004's I Heart Huckabees). Wahlberg, a dependable actor, does his best work with Russell. However, both actor and director are aware of the talented cast around them and, instead of Wahlberg going all out in the drama department, they let the supporting cast shine through. The story may be about Mickey, but he faces stiff competition from the fascinating slew of characters that walk in and out of his life.

Christian Bale leads the pack of supporting characters with his shocking physical and emotional transformation into Dickie Eklund. Bale lost an incredible amount of weight (although, it should be noted, not as much as he lost in 2004's The Machinist). He also thinned his hair (complete with bald spots) and dirtied his teeth to fully embody a man who still fancies himself the town's celebrity figure. His crack addiction is the worst-kept secret in the neighbourhood, but there's no denying the talent he once had, which is still evident as he trains his brother, Mickey. Dickie is both comic relief and a tragic character. Bale is almost scary-good with his black-rimmed and haunted eyes. You forget he's Christian Bale. His complete transformation into his role is admirable when compared to other actors who simply phone in their performances. Say what you will about Bale and his hot-headed temper, but the man is a genuine artist and he just might finally get that elusive Oscar this year.

In a handful of boxing movies, the women play background characters: The Girlfriend. The Wife. The Mother. While relegated to the background, they show up only to provide brief emotional support or get punched around themselves. Films about boxing tend to only be about men. In The Fighter, the women are just as strong, fascinating and hardened as their male counterparts.

Amy Adams once again proves that, if she stays away from lame rom-coms, she can be an exceptional actress. Her role as Charlene is strong and fierce; she's not a woman to be messed with and she wants nothing but the best for Mickey, even if that means convincing him to detach himself from his family. Her violent physical tilts and war of words with Micky's mother and seven sisters make for some of the best scenes in the film. She might be heading towards yet another Oscar nomination this year. In a recent interview with David Letterman, both Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro cited her as their favourite young actress working today. With friends like that in her corner, Adams should remain focused on starring in well-made cinematic gems.

Last, but not least, Melissa Leo is trashy and fabulous as Mickey's mother, Alice. With her horrifically permed and bleached hair, constant chain-smoking and stiletto heels, she's a force to be reckoned with and she doesn't let anyone forget that her two sons are her main source of pride and joy. Bale, Adams and Leo are all nominated for Screen Actors Guild Awards and Oscar kudos are likely to follow.

The camera work is exceptional: you are literally placed in the middle of both Mickey's battles inside and outside the ring. Whether it's a boxing match against a formidable foe or a verbal battle with his head-strong mother, the camera chronicles the events as though recording a documentary. You feel every punch and every verbal blow.