The Fighter

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

David O. Russell’s third collaboration with Mark Wahlberg recounts and burnishes the story of Lowell, Massachusetts junior welterweight “Irish” Micky Ward, a Rocky Balboa-like working class slugger whose family ties constantly threaten to derail his career. Hewing close to the requirements of the underdog struggle, “The Fighter” is surely Russell’s most traditional feature – seemingly miles away from the love-it-or-hate-it chaos of “I Heart Huckabees.” Closer inspection, however, reveals several of the filmmaker’s thematic strengths, most notably intellect disguised as foolishness or stupidity and the ways in which cynicism and redemption form uneasy truces.

Mark Wahlberg, whose long relationship with the project outlasted flirtations with Brad Pitt and the departure of Darren Aronofsky (who received an executive producer credit), understands Ward’s manual laborer appeal, and capitalizes on one of the boxing genre’s favorite types: the almost broken, disadvantaged dreamer capable of surprising himself with greatness. “The Fighter” even provides a two-for-one in this category, highlighting the downward spiral of Micky’s graceless, drug-addled half-brother Dicky Eklund – a one-time puncher who managed to last ten rounds with Sugar Ray Leonard. Dicky coasts on his reputation, deluding himself and anyone who might listen with talk of a comeback, even though HBO’s “America Undercover” is featuring him in a documentary titled “High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell.”

Christian Bale, recently awarded Best Supporting Actor from the National Board of Review for his work in “The Fighter,” plays Dicky in the kind of showy, twitchy performance that divides critics and viewers. Hollow-eyed and emaciated, Bale holds nothing back, and despite – or perhaps because of – the dire neediness of Dicky, pulls off some remarkably tricky interactions, most notably a rendition of “I Started a Joke” pregnant with the sort of false sincerity favorite sons use to bamboozle doting mothers.

Bale’s work is matched by the prowess of the frightening and fearless Melissa Leo as Micky and Dicky’s mother Alice. Alice presides over a brood that also includes Micky and Dicky’s seven sisters, a group of fiercely loyal, hair-sprayed harpies. Their palpable animosity toward Micky’s new love Charlene (Amy Adams in her best role since 2005 breakthrough “Junebug”) erupts in a handful of blackly comic confrontations in which Micky is caught in the middle. Despite being stuck with the eternally thankless supportive girlfriend role, Adams kicks her Disney princess image hard in the backside.

Amidst the thunderous turns by his co-stars, Wahlberg’s understated presence quietly and confidently grounds “The Fighter” with an element of Russell’s signature irony that casts the pugilist as peacemaker. Not everyone will swallow the late unification of Micky’s opposing camps (Mickey O’Keefe, one of Ward’s real-life trainers, is better than good simply, or not so simply, playing himself), especially in light of the brutal undercurrent of sibling rivalry that perpetually backs Micky into Dicky’s “Pride of Lowell” shadow. We know from experience, not to mention from Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides, that blood complicates relationships without regard for logic. On this count, “The Fighter” wins by decision.

This review was published for Southpaw Filmworks the week of 12/20/10.

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