With Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo and Mickey O’Keefe; Directed by David O. Russell; Rated PG-13 for violence and brief strong language; 115 minutes.
Whatever you think of real-life boxing, there’s no question that as a movie genre it has brought out some of the best in actors and directors, from “Golden Boy” and “Body and Soul” to “Rocky” and “Raging Bull.” With THE FIGHTER, Mark Wahlberg has put together a project close to his heart and surrounded himself with such an array of talent that it makes you wonder why this took five years to get made.
Wahlberg stars as real-life boxer Mickey Ward of Lowell, Mass., whose battles out of the ring may have been just as great as those inside. No, he’s not battling booze or gamblers or wanton women, the usual snares in such movies. His problem is his own family. They love him and are devoted to him, but don’t seem to realize that it is those very feelings which are destroying his career.
Ward’s mother Alice (Melissa Leo) is his manager and can’t abide anyone ever second-guessing her, even when Ward ends up in a mismatched bout with a boxer who has twenty pounds on him. She also favors his older half-brother Dicky (Christian Bale), who is a piece of work himself – a one-time, big-time boxer, with two aims in life: training Mickey and getting high on crack cocaine. Dicky gives him good advice… when he remembers to show up.
Mickey’s involvement with Charlene (Amy Adams), a a former college athlete who dropped out of school and now works as a bartender, is good for him, but drives his seven (!) sisters wild with rage and jealousy. Who is this “skank” who presumes to know better than own Mickey’s family what choices he should be making? Their chorus of disapproval is at times funny and at times frightening. It’s amazing the real Ward had the strength to fight in the ring after contending with all of this.
Director David O. Russell, who previously worked with Wahlberg on “Three Kings” and “I Heart Huckabees,” manages to keep us focused on Ward getting his shot at a real boxing career while contending with everything from Dicky being the subject of a documentary on drug abuse to Charlene clobbering one of his sisters. Some have found these larger-than-life characters overwhelming but, as Bale has pointed out in interviews, he actually toned down his portrayal of what the real Dicky is like (and whom we briefly see in the closing credits).
The performances here are top-notch. Wahlberg does some of his best work to date as Ward, and Adams is a working class heroine as Charlene. In the two showiest roles, both Bale and Leo ferociously chew the scenery, but there’s no indication that this is exaggeration on their part. Bale is, as Dicky says of himself, “squirrely” in his manic energy and fight-or-flight response to everything. Leo portrays Alice as a stage mother so controlling and manipulative that she makes Mama Rose of “Gypsy” look like Mother Teresa.
“The Fighter” is a great boxing movie, a great Massachusetts movie, and a great showcase for its lead actors. Even in a good year at the movies, it would be a standout; in a dismal year like this one, it’s manna from heaven.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.