Co-producer/star Mark Wahlberg’s long-gestating biopic about boxer Mickey Ward finally makes it to the screen with David O. Russell—who directed Wahlberg in I Heart Huckabees back in 2004 and in Three Kings in 1999—at the helm. The result is a good film that works better than it should, but falls short of greatness. The movie is simply up against an inherent problem: It’s a fairly typical underdog-boxing story that never offers much in the way of surprise. Yes, it’s complicated by its dysfunctional-family aspect, but even that is as old as Rouben Mamoulian’s Golden Boy (1939). And while David O. Russell brings his considerable cinematic flair to the proceedings, I never felt that Russell was all that engaged by the material.
The film simply never overcomes the limitations of its genre. It’s firmly entrenched—no matter how real it all is—in the realm of boxing-movie basic. In some ways, that’s not entirely a downside. That basic formula has always worked and it works an audience. Of course, it helps that boxing is far and away the most cinematic—and cinematically satisfying—of all sports.
Wahlberg plays “Irish” Mickey Ward, and he’s exceptionally good in the role. In fact, Mickey and his barmaid girlfriend Charlene Fleming (Amy Adams) are the most honest, heartfelt and underplayed characters in the movie. The rest—including Christian Bale’s much-praised and undeniably very busy performance—tend to be more like caricatures, with their working-class Massachusetts accents and clannish mentality. In a lot of ways, that’s understandable, since movies are to some degree written in shorthand. Still, Mickey’s mother, Alice Ward (Melissa Leo), and his brace of harpy half-sisters never seem quite real. When they’re played for comedy, it works. Otherwise, they’re more of a distraction than anything.
The film is undoubtedly clever in terms of its construction, starting with following an HBO crew of documentarians making a TV film about Mickey’s half-brother Dicky Ecklund (Bale), the one-time “Pride of Lowell,” who was once in a fight where he knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard. Dicky has been living on this highlight ever since—all the while spiraling into crack addiction, a situation his mother chooses to ignore. Instead, she sees Dicky training Mickey as little more than an extension of favored-son Dicky’s personal glory. What none of the family—save possibly Mickey—seem to realize is that the HBO film has less to do with Dicky as the “Pride of Lowell” than Dicky as the crack addict.
The premiere of the HBO film is really the turning point for Mickey and for The Fighter. As outraged as the family is over the film, it’s simply no longer possible for them to deny that Dicky—who has been tossed into prison for a series of offenses and a long history of arrests—has a problem. For Mickey, who had given up boxing after his hand was broken in the same arrest that sent Dicky to jail, it’s the impetus to finally become his own man and a fighter in his own right rather than an extension of his brother. This is where The Fighter moves into a crowd-pleasing boxing picture, which is actually where it’s on its firmest footing—even if both the outcome and the complications are never in doubt, whether or not you know anything about the real-life events.
It’s obvious that everyone involved was meaning for The Fighter to be something more than a boxing picture—and I almost think they tried too hard. That’s certainly my take on Christian Bale’s bag of twitches and mannerisms that fuel his portrayal of Dicky. It’s showy and flashy and, for me, typically gimmicky. What Bale doesn’t seem to realize is that all his histrionics don’t have nearly the impact of Wahlberg’s quiet intensity. When Bale has a furious outburst, it’s just more of the same. When Wahlberg erupts into a fury, it’s riveting. In that regard, Wahlberg manages to edge the film a little closer to that “something more,” and it’s not his fault that it never quite gets there. Rated R for language throughout, drug content, some violence and sexuality.