The Fighter (U.S., 2010) directed by David O. Russell, 116 Minutes
Mark Wahlberg has come a long way since his rap career and Calvin Klein underwear ad days...now a respected actor, producer and Hollywood powerhouse with executive producing credits for the TV series Entourage and Boardwalk Empire and a thriving acting career.
The biographical story depicted in The Fighter also echoes, perhaps, the relationship between the younger Mark Wahlberg and his older brother Donny Wahlberg, a once upon a time pop star in the popular 1980s/1990s boy band New Kids on the Block: a large, hardscrabble, Irish family from Massachusetts; an older, once successful brother and younger, aspiring brother also seeking fame and fortune, the older brother on the downslope...no wonder the idea appealed to Wahlberg.
In The Fighter, Wahlberg plays Micky Ward, a Welterweight boxer from a rough and tumble Irish-American working class family in Lowell, MA. Micky is managed by his mother, Alice Ward (the miraculous Melissa Leo), and trained by his older half-brother Dicky Ecklund (Christian Bale), a crack addicted, unreliable screw-up who, inexplicably, appears to be the darling of the family which also includes seven adoring sisters.
Bale is a physical and psychological revelation here - eye poppingly gaunt, jittery, cocky - physically embodying the charming but volatile and none too bright Ecklund. David O. Russell's (I Heart Huckabees, Three Kings) opening sequence featuring the pumping, hypnotic beat of The Heavy's How you like me now? follows Dicky down the street as he jokes, hugs, spars with neighbors and friends, as if he is still the king of the world he was a dozen or so years before as a former New England Welterweight champ instead of crack smoking junkie who's afraid of his mother's wrath (as he should be - Alice really kicks ass).
As the film begins, an HBO documentary crew is trailing Dicky about what he presumes is his supposed comeback (at the tender age of 40) but unbeknownst to Dicky, in actuality, it's about his crack cocaine addiction. He is to be featured in a doc called High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell. Thirty year old Micky's fate is perhaps no less depressing...he is perceived by most in the boxing world as a "stepping stone" for other boxers to defeat on their way up the boxing hierarchy to a championship.
I love Wahlberg's persona in this film - Micky is so cowed by everyone around him - his overbearing mother Alice, his charismatic, fuck up of a brother, his tough, soon-to-be girlfriend Charlene. He floats through life with no will of his own, being pulled this way and that, unable to say no. unable to resist the volcanic forces of the family. And Wahlberg plays it so simply, no tough guy smirks and posturing, just a look of utter defeat and hopelessness when it comes to how he should run his life and career.
Talked into a disastrous boxing match by his mother and brother with an opponent who outweighs him by 18 pounds, Micky is soundly and humiliatingly defeated in the ring in Las Vegas. This is the final straw for him. Back home Micky retreats from his family and begins a tentative relationship with the pretty but tough-minded and foul mouthed Charlene Fleming (Amy Adams), a former college athlete now working as a bartender who urges him to remove himself from the toxic circle of his family's control with regards to his career.
Adams has shown that she is fearless in choosing eclectic and challenging roles - from the naive fairy princess in Enchanted to the timid nun harboring a secret about alleged sexual abuse in Doubt to the Julia Child wannabe/blogger in Julia & Julie - she captures the essence of each character she plays.
Micky timidly tells the family that he has received an offer to be paid to train in Las Vegas but Dicky insists that he will match the offer to keep Micky with the family. His criminal antics to raise money (too foolish to elaborate here but involving prostitution and car theft) land him in jail after a tumultuous and bloody fight with police which has Micky and his seven sisters intervening and Micky breaking his hand defending his brother.
Those seven sisters: you have to hand it to Russell in casting very believable, very tough looking girls to play these roles. These are not pretty, they are not nice; they are trash talking, bleached blonde viragos who are just as likely to jump in a car and go to Charlene's house to beat her up for "stealing" Micky's affections from the family as they would be to bake a cake for Dicky's homecoming from prison (and they do both).The scenarios are depressing, the people are not pretty (with the exception of the two leads); it's ugly and dirty and realistic.
While Dicky is in jail, Micky's father George Ward finds a new manager, Sal LoNano, and they place Micky in a few minor fights to build his confidence with the proviso that neither his mother Alice nor brother Dicky be involved in Micky's career. Dicky, much to his horror, while in prison finally views the doc that was filmed about him before his cellmates - shocked, humiliated and angered, this appears to be a turning point for him - "the pride of Lowell, Massachusetts" is no more...
Dicky storms out, returns to his old crack house still peopled by the same gang, but rather than join them and resume smoking he continues on to Charlene's apartment appealing to her that Micky needs both of them; they reconcile...because they must.
Inevitably folks, because this is Hollywood and everyone loves a winner, the entire group goes to the U.K. for the title fight. Micky scores an upset victory and wins the Welterweight title. It never seems a sure thing which heightens the tension and sweetens the victory.
Raging Bull it ain't but it is a great story about family loyalty and overcoming adversity...you can't beat that.