"Stop calling me an MTV girl."
There's a point near the start of every boxing bout, where the two adversaries dance around the ring, feeling one and other out. The quiet before the storm so-to-speak; the moments of anticipation before one (or both) bears the pummeling. These calm instances sum up THE FIGHTER for me. It's all expectation, and no substance. It tells the story of Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a welterweight contender from Lowell, Massachusetts whose rises from the slums to the top of his profession. Wahlberg is mostly lifeless here; his greatest battle is the one to successfully come across as a competent actor.
I think the problem comes down to me not caring at all about boxing, or the films that chronicle the sport. I respect the athletic feats these people are able to accomplish, but how cookie-cutter are the layouts for these particular affairs? An impoverished local hero with a chip on his shoulder? Check. Battles adversity, while overcoming self-doubt? Check. Plays the "me versus the world" card? Check. Has a momentary setback? Check. Against all odds, he rises to the top of his sport while redeeming himself in his own eyes and the eyes of others? Check.
The best part people will say is the cast. And yes, some of that is true. Christian Bale is great as always; he even made TERMINATOR: SALVATION watchable, and it was directed by McG. Like 2004's THE MACHINIST Bale goes through a drastic physical change. Although not down to 120 pounds, his dedication and transformation remains potent. Bale plays Dickie Eklund: the older half-brother of "Irish" Micky Ward. A former boxer with promise, Dickie turned to crack which eventually consumed his pockets and drive, derailing his career for good. This may not be the "best" supporting character of 2010, but Bale is due. As we all know, the Academy has a history of rewarding not one, but a sum of roles an actor has portrayed over the years. Bale has conquered indie and mainstream audiences alike; it's about time he's seeing some accolades. He's won most awards he's been up for this year, including the Golden Globe. I fully expect an Oscar to accompany it on his mantle.
Melissa Leo, who earned acclaim in 2009's FROZEN RIVER also stars. Despite only being eleven and fourteen older than Wahlberg and Bale, Leo plays their mother Alice Ward. Alice hates most things she comes across: like outsiders, people telling her what to do, etc. But as the mother of nine children with multiple partners, it's evident her real enemy is birth control. I've never seen the real Alice Ward, but Leo's edition is the most over-the-top performance you will likely witness this year. And I have zero patience to even discuss the seven sisters (save for the haplessly named Phyllis "Beaver" Eklund, played by Kate O'Brien, sister of Conan). I just wish I had some gloves and some talent in the ring to help illustrate my feelings towards these wretched women.
I was happy to see Amy Adams here. After rising to fame playing princesses and lovable ingénues, she completely sells Charlene, a white trash bartender who drank away her education and now gets through each day working, all the while thwarting alcoholics and bad tippers. Micky defends her honor by (what else) beating someone up. Charlene is an imperfect shining light from the same side of the tracks. Micky is lucky to have her; as THE FIGHTER is lucky to have Adams.
As the title suggests, the most compelling scenes involving Micky are in the ring where director David O. Russell deployed the same cameras and commentary that HBO utilized when the actual fights took place. There is a realistic look to these intimate moments; a fact only cemented by the actual punches thrown and landed by the combatants during filming. Sadly, the grittiness that builds up here quickly erodes when the action leaves the squared circle; or when Bale and Adams are nowhere to be seen.
THE FIGHTER was a labor of love for Wahlberg. He spent six years bringing it to life, stating his intent was do Ward's story "justice." And I think he succeeds, it's just not that compelling of a tale. Wahlberg beefs up to the appropriate levels and looks the part. He has a very believable left jab, but he's always had muscles; if only he had the acting chops to complement them. THE FIGHTER found itself on many pundits top films list; it is not on mine. Not even close. Producers egregiously assume that finding a celebrated director, while matching him with talented performers will automatically garner adulation. Personally, I would have rather watched two hours of Dickie as he circumvents his issues with substance abuse. That storyline actually felt real, while everything else quickly turned into inconsequential fodder. The Fighter periodically hits us with a few effective body blows, but lacks the finishing right hook to completely floor.