We’ve been lured by urban settings before – places so vivid they become a character in and of themselves: Dickensian London, James Joyce’s Dublin, Scorsese’s New York…and now, in recent years we’ve found a great attraction to Affleckted Boston. Movies like The Departed, Gone Baby Gone and this year’s The Town have taken us there before. Ben Affleck may have nothing to do with this latest, The Fighter, but he’s been the greatest purveyor of this white trash squalor, and it runs amuck in David O. Russell’s fact based tale surrounding Micky Ward’s struggle to rise above his roots in the Lowell subsection of Boston to become a champion boxer.
Boxing films have become the most prestigious sub-genre of sports films. Many an actor and director have used the boxing ring as a stepping stone in their careers and a way to rack up awards. The Fighter is as formulaic as they come, so the audience must focus on the performances and the direction to find their entertainment.
As Micky Ward, Mark Whalberg makes a compelling straight-man to the cast of scenery-chewing clowns around him. Never having been able to show much range, Whalberg displays his commitment by turning it into a physical performance, and O. Russell does a commendable job making the fight scenes seem authentic by staging them like HBO shot the actual fights they are re-enacting. This successfully removes the film from comparisons to past legendary boxing films like Raging Bull by positioning it more akin to a docu-drama.
Meanwhile, as Micky’s crack head brother, Dicky, Christian Bale relishes a bit too much in playing the classic loser who hits rock bottom before finding redemption. Melissa Leo chews every bit of scenery and lesser actor/actress around her as their train wreck of a mother/manager. There’s one scene after Leo wrastles Bale from a crack house and they begin singing together in the car where I thought they would end up chewing on each other thus causing a tear in the space-film continuum where The Fighter became a zombie apocalypse film. O. Russell seems to enjoy letting these two chomp on everything, and there’s an air of disdain for his characters that hangs over many scenes, especially the tragically humorous bits involving Micky’s gaggle of idiotic and meddling sisters. In an attempt not to let the film turn into a dark comedy, O. Russell holds back Leo and Bale in later scenes where they find redemption by keeping the histrionics in check.
Amy Adams, as Micky’s tough as nails girlfriend Charlene, rescues the audience from the over-acting shenanigans of Leo and Bale by effectively going against type and turning in a consummately professional and measured performance. Never once do you doubt Adams’ commitment to pulling this off nor do you second-guess her character’s authenticity and commitment to Micky. Her scenes where she takes on Leo and her gang of frizzied-haired misfit daughters are the film’s highlights.
With performances just wacky enough to keep you on your toes and direction just interesting enough to rise above the formula, The Fighter becomes a decent way to spend a few hours. Likewise, its depiction of Lowell should please those who have come to expect this kind of colorful depiction of Boston and its suburbs. Sadly, there’s nothing revolutionary on display and there aren’t enough layers in the narrative to give the film any deeper resonance.
Meanwhile, the marked differences between the methods of Leo and Bale vs. Adams should provide decent fodder for those currently enrolled in acting classes. Personally, I think Adams knocked them out…you wanna fight about it?
Written by David H. Schleicher