“The Fighter,” starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, and Amy Adams, is a boxing movie, so viewers will not be surprised at much of its action and its climax. These involve, um, fights, and they are well staged, though without the pyrotechnics of, say, the “Rocky” series. Based on a true story, the plot follows the rise of Mickey Ward, a street worker in Lowell, Mass., to the welterweight championship. Much of the publicity has gone to Bale as Mickey’s half-brother and trainer, Dickie Ecklund. Indeed, Bale gets to chew the most scenery, making his younger bro appear almost timid at times. Dickie is an ex-fighter and ex-con, still losing the fight with his addiction to crack cocaine. He’s living on past glories: he once went the distance with Sugar Ray Leonard, whom he claims to have knocked down. As the movie opens, Dickie is being filmed by a camera crew from HBO, a documentary about the terrible effects of the drug. Tellingly, however, Dickie cockily believes that the film will follow his comeback.
His self-delusion is mirrored and cultivated by his mother, Alice, who blindly continues to favor her older son though she is managing (or mismanaging) Mickey’s career. As wonderfully portrayed by Melissa Leo, Alice is a shifting, bitchy force of a woman, manipulating her nine children. And they are a handful, especially the daughters, who come off as a chorus of harpies, shrill, profane, even vicious. (They have nicknames such as Pork, Tar, and Red Dog.) Cowed by the women in his family, Mickey is unable to break away from them and his brother, even as he watches his career going down the tubes.
His first separation comes when he meets Charlene, a young woman tending bar at a local dive. Seeing the destructive power that Mickey’s family wields, she convinces him to assert himself against them, earning herself their collective wrath. But Charlene gives as good as she gets: Adams plays distinctly against her previous demure types, lending the character a depth that her job doesn’t usually suggest. She allies herself with Mickey’s long-suffering father, George (Jack McKee) and his corner man, police sergeant Mickey O’Keefe, convincingly portrayed by Mickey O’Keefe himself. Under new management and with Dickie back in jail, Mickey at last starts to fulfill his potential as a boxer, though his personal development lags his professional growth.
Director David O. Russell employs a variety of film stocks and a handheld camera to capture the gritty reality of Lowell, where the movie was partly filmed. And the boxing scenes rendered by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and film editor Pamela Martin nicely catch the excitement of the events and the physical cost to the fighters. (A number of ring professionals, including George Foreman, appear in bit parts.) The boxing scenes, alternating with the fights occurring in Mickey’s life outside the ring, keep the tension high, and Russell moves the action along briskly. This is never a boring film.
Bale is a likely Oscar nominee for the goofy, canny, deluded Dickie. But Wahlberg, who trained long and hard for a role which he had sought for years, is no less compelling. Mickey and Dickie serve as foils for each other, each brother establishing the other’s character by contrast. The matching scenes at the front and back ends neatly suggest the distance both men have come.
“The Fighter” is correctly rated ”R” for its recurrent violence and profanity, both of which are entirely appropriate for the characters and action. It’s both a typical boxing movie and an unusual sports flick, focusing more on the dysfunctional family than the fights. The resolution is a tad too easy for my taste, though I’d guess most will find it satisfying.