Review: THE FIGHTER Proves A Formula Can Work And Bale Can Smile

Oh hi, Christian Bale. Here’s your Oscar nomination. And thank you for playing a character who can laugh.

David O Russell has always been an iconoclastic director, but he’s also flirted with the mainstream. Spanking the Monkey may have been an incest story, but it was done in the predominant indie style of the time. Flirting With Disaster was obviously heavily influenced by screwball comedies. Three Kings had many stylistic tics that were fresh at the time, but the general feel of the film was Hollywood. I <3 Huckabees is certainly his most on the edge production, but it also feels inspired by the heightened reality and emotions of musicals.

At any rate, if Huckabees was Russell going out to the edge The Fighter is him retreating far from it. A complete and total formula picture, The Fighter is a movie that follows the standard sports triumph line and mixes it in with some family troubles, ending up with what is probably the only Oscar movie ever made about a family ready to be on Jerry Springer. What The Fighter really proves isn’t that you need your family or that if you just keep trying you’ll succeed or any of the other platitudes common to its formula - it proves that a formula, when put in the right hands and acted by the right people, can be a beautiful thing.

The trailers for The Fighter were kind of funny because they said something along the lines of ‘Starring Oscar nominee Mark Wahlberg, Oscar nominee Amy Adams… and Christian Bale.’ In a couple of weeks Bale will get to add ‘Oscar nominee’ to his trailer intro; his performance as fallen boxer and crackhead Dicky Ecklund is brilliant. Over the years I’ve given Bale some shit, wishing that he would take a role that wasn’t a brooding grim guy. He’s finally found the role that allows him to smile and crack jokes and be silly and be fun, and it allows him that because all of that is based on pain. Dick was once a promising fighter, the pride of his north of Boston home town, Lowell Mass. But the only place that he made it was to the crackhouse, where he shriveled away.

Bale has a manic ferocity in the role (as a friend noted it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that Method-heavy Bale smoked a ton of crack in preparation, because he really sells being high), but I think the great aspect of the performance is that Bale keeps it perfectly centered. You feel bad for Dicky but he never quite crosses over into pathetic. You like Dicky but you never lose sight of the fact that he is a monumental fuck up. And Bale reminds us again and again where Dicky’s pain comes from without having to get too explicit. When confronted about the falseness of his one moment of boxing glory, Dicky replies, ‘I was in the ring. Don’t you think I know what happened?’ That line is vague - it could, on the page, be a confession or it could be a denial. From Bale it’s both. Acting, I’ve been told, is the art of saying one thing while feeling something else and getting across both at once. Bale acts. And acts. And acts.

But his acting here isn’t the showy, scenery chewing kind (although it is broad, but having seen footage of the real Dicky Ecklund it’s obvious that Bale is simply bringing verisimilitude to the performance). Bale’s big moments, his silly moments, his broad hopping around moments are sleight of hand keeping Dicky’s friends and family from seeing the wound festering inside of him. To Bale’s credit he gets across both of those things. It’s one of the great performances of the year, and it’s probably the best of Bale’s entire career.

There are some who keep up with him. Melissa Leo, playing the mother to washed up Dicky and up and coming brother Micky, is beyond remarkable. She disappears totally into the role of trashy Massachusetts mom to the point where I kept forgetting who I was watching. She’s playing a tough character; one of The Fighter‘s major shortcomings is that it sets up a villainous role for the mother and a group of shrewish, acid washed sisters and never quite redeems them but asks that we simply accept them at the end. It’s simply from Leo’s sheer force of will that this is even acceptable; by the end of the movie I was technically okay with her but still very aware that the script had completely shorted her.

Amy Adams is remarkable and sexy and strong, playing Micky’s bartending girlfriend who helps him break away from his awful family and find his own confidence and ability. Where the script shorts the mother and sisters in almost unforgivable ways it offers Adams’ Charlene some delightful depths, and Adams adds to them. The character is butting right up against being a two-dimensional goodie two shoes, but Adams brings the hints of darkness that flesh Charlene out. She’s a smart girl but she’s not a good girl; she ended up tending bar, getting creepily hit on daily, because of her own choices and her own mistakes. It’s a subtle element of her character, but she’s just as interested in Micky for what he means to her as the mother is. The mom sees Micky, who has been called a stepping stone fighter because he loses to other, climbing boxers so often, as a stepping stone to Dicky’s long-hoped-for return to the ring. Charlene loves Micky for sure, but also sees him as the best choice she’s made. She’s banking her future on this guy just as much mom is.

Which brings us to Micky. The ostensible center of the film. My biggest problem with The Fighter. For the first half of The Fighter I was enjoying the film well enough. The movie is, surprisingly, hilarious and it’s a fun watch. It’s easy to remember what an intense dude Russell is and forget how deft he is with comedy - all of his films are pretty damn funny, and The Fighter could be his funniest since Flirting With Disaster. But that comedy was only taking me so far because the entire film was centered around a character and a performance I just couldn’t get into.

Mark Wahlberg is an actor who needs a good director to make him work. In the wrong hands he’s a mess, but in the hands of someone like David O. Russell he’s terrific. Which is why I don’t understand what’s wrong with him in The Fighter. I suspect some of my problem with Wahlberg comes from his character - I found ‘Irish’ Micky Ward to be a pushover, a chump, a nobody and a simp. A simp who could destroy me with one punch, but a simp nonetheless. His mother is his manager, Dicky is his trainer, and both treat him like shit. Mom is obviously only interested in bringing Dicky back and Dicky can’t be bothered to even show up for training. He fights bad bouts, is put up against opponents who are too big for him and generally just takes it. He’s a chump, and nowhere in the first half of the film did I ever see evidence that this guy had a champ inside of him. In fact the only reason I suspected he’d go anywhere is that they bothered to make a movie about him.

That character - a wilting follower - is made all the more irritating by Wahlberg’s performance. The actor has two modes - tough guy and whiner. You know the tough guy from The Departed; for the whiner just think of his role in The Happening: “Have you guys heard about the bees?” In Huckabees Russell managed to find an alchemical halfway point between those two character types in the existential fireman role, but no such luck in The Fighter. Wahlberg just disappears into the film, wallpaper against whom other, more interesting actors work.

Which, to be fair, is part of the point. As is the case of most movie boxers Micky’s strategy is to be able to take a ton of punishment, wear out his opponent and then come back at the end (I think this is so popular in the movies because it’s the most cinematic way of winning. It’s got a three act structure - the beginning, the trials and tribulations, the triumph. Boxers who end fights in three minutes are far less cinematic and are usually bad guys), and that reflects his character arc. For most of the movie he just takes punishment from his mother and his brother; even when he breaks away and starts getting successful he has to be led by Charlene. It isn’t until right at the end, when everyone else is exhausted, that he stands up and takes control. I could deal with that if Wahlberg, at any point before the last ten minutes, gave me something on which I could hang my caring about him. The first half of the film, for me, was unfocused because the focal point of the story was a character I just simply didn’t care about.

But the formula wins the day. By the end of the film I had tears in my eyes, although it was the relationship between the brothers that moved me the most rather than the boxing triumph, although the boxing is quite good. Russell shoots the boxing matches like they’re TV broadcasts, bringing a level of reality to the fights, almost like they’re just splicing in the real events. Shooting a boxing match is tough because we’ve seen so many in cinema at this point. Most feel like retreads of Rocky or Raging Bull, even thirty some odd years on. Russell’s style has a freshness and immediacy that works nicely and that keeps it apart from a dozen other boxing films.

The Fighter is a crowd pleaser and an Oscar baiter. It’s a film that is a blast to watch, especially with a responsive crowd, but I don’t know that the whole is quite the sum of its parts. I can’t help but feel I would be as over the moon for the film as everyone else if Wahlberg was better, or if someone else were in that role. It’s certainly an easy film to enjoy fully, an engaging and funny and well-made if familiar story. It’s not Russell’s best, but it’ll probably be his most popular.