The Fighter is the gravel-kicking true story of boxer Micky Ward; his wasted, battered, has-been older brother, Dickie Eklund, who threw away his career in the ring on booze, drugs and whores; and the scabby, loudmouthed trailer-trash family of creeps who drove them both to success and destruction, in equal doses. It’s a boxing comeback movie with every cliché in the book, directed by David O. Russell, a master of pretentious self-indulgence responsible for some of the worst movies ever made (I’m still trying to wipe out toxic memories of a thing called I Heart Huckabees).
So how is it possible that I found a film about a subject I care nothing about, directed by a pretentious hack I find utterly lacking in skill, so surprisingly confident, invigorating and interesting? A prize-worthy team of dedicated actors giving it all they’ve got speaks volumes about the tone, pace and energy level of a film in which the testosterone levels tip the Richter scale. And that includes the women.
In this dysfunctional Lowell, Mass., family full of children with different last names, Mark Wahlberg is Micky, whose hardscrabble life is filled with missed opportunities as he tries to please his trashy, peroxided, chain-smoking motormouth mother, Alice, who acts as his manager (a scenery-chewing, scene-stealing performance by Melissa Leo in high-heel white boots and big hair the size of a hornet nest); and his borderline-retarded crackhead half-brother, Dickie (Christian Bale), who acts as his trainer. There is also a girlfriend named Charlene (Amy Adams)—a tough, sexy, no-nonsense bartender who battles his relatives to stand by her man and save him from his family of demented lowlifes.
The story begins in 1993, when Micky is already over the hill and Dickie is still clinging to his one moment of glory in the ring—the night he scored a knockdown in a losing fight against Sugar Ray Leonard. Micky is loyal to Dickie, but every time he has a bout, they have to drag the trainer out of a crack den. Dickie is so deluded he thinks HBO is following him around making a movie about his own “comeback,” but they’re really only filming a cautionary documentary about what drug addiction can do to American youth.
Factored into the equation are at least five or six sisters who come and go like comic caricatures, resembling a Carol Burnett skit about the Macbeth witches entering show business. (A real Russell example of uncontrolled excess that is fortunately missing from the rest of the film.) With Charlene guiding and supporting him and Dickie behind bars, Micky finally dumps his mother, reshapes his career and starts to focus. After a win at Caesars Palace, when sports commentators were writing his obit, Micky finally gets a chance for a title bout in London. What happens after Dickie gets out of prison with new teeth and new plans provides fireworks.
The genealogy is baffling. It is never clear why they’re all called Eklund except Micky, who is a Ward, even though some of the siblings who are younger than he are called Eklund, too. That bimbo mother apparently really got around. With serrated voices, ratty hair and a passion for beer and processed junk food, they’re a perfect illustration of the stuff blue-collar white folks in the Boston suburbs crave—but not the upscale kind. These walking nightmares have never seen a Billy Wilder movie, tasted sushi, listened to NPR or had a flu shot. They are easily satirized and obvious fodder for actors with tattoos.
And still, the cast is never less than hypnotic. Wahlberg is both dopey and endearing as the Muscle McGurk with a good heart trying to run away from a crazy, sadistic family of control freaks and a dead-end future. Bale returns to the way he looked as the emaciated, sleep-deprived zombie he played in The Machinist, like the ghoulish, skeletal Dachau survivors when the Allies liberated the death camps in 1945. Once again, he gives his all for his art in a memorable but repellent performance that reminded me of the painful, grimaced faces in the paintings of George Grosz.
All of the actors’ voices disappear into boiled-cabbage Boston accents that are astoundingly accurate (especially Adams, eras removed from the nice cookbook author–wife in Julie and Julia). These are characters so repulsive that it’s hard to care what happens to them, but it’s to the credit of a superb cast that you do end up caring. At the end, The Fighter shows a clip of the real Micky and Dickie, and all bets are off. As close to a circus sideshow as it sometimes seems, this art not only imitates life, but mirrors it creepily.