The movie is called The Fighter, singular, but it really could be called The Fighters, plural, as everyone in Lowell, MA, is fighting for something: Pride; a better life; their own story. The street-wise characters populating this town (and the actors who play them) tell a compelling, true story of redemption.
Our protagonist, (perhaps) the titular fighter, is Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a boxer and the little brother of Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), also a boxer. Dicky is known as the Pride of Lowell, having taken down Sugar Ray Leonard. (Although, that will come into dispute: Trying to make Dicky recognize his own shortcomings, a couple characters tell him he didn’t knock out Sugar Ray; rather, Sugar Ray slipped.) Dicky is now addicted to crack and when we meet the two brothers, they are being filmed by a documentary crew from HBO. Dicky thinks they are making a film about his comeback; really, they’re making a film about crack addiction.
As Dicky falls deeper and deeper into his addiction, Micky is trying to make a name for himself as a boxer. Helping and hindering him along the way are his brother (who trains him when Dicky actually remembers to show up) and his manager mother, Alice (Melissa Leo). Micky meets and falls for Charlene (Amy Adams), much to the dismay of his seven sisters, who think Charlene is wild and snotty. (She is neither.) With Charlene by his side and after Alice and Dicky force Micky into the ring with a boxer above his weight class – just so everyone can get paid – Micky starts to wonder if his family really has his best interest in mind. As the story unfolds, we watch a young man fight to move out of his brother’s shadow, out from under his mother’s wing and into a life of which he’s in control.
The story is compelling and even a little tear inducing at moments. The direction, by auteur David O. Russell (Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees), is very good (I particularly like the opening sequence during which Micky and Dicky walk through town saying hello to everyone; this scene is echoed toward the end of the film when Micky and Dicky are training for Micky’s title fight) but the best thing about The Fighter is the stellar cast.
I’ve always liked Amy Adams and she does great work here as Charlene, who’s fighting to turn her life around. Adams, who is beautiful and a successful movie star, is still able to believably bring to life the girl next door. Adams’s Charlene is strong and supportive, but doesn’t take any bullshit. Ultimately, you can see in her eyes that she cares deeply for Micky, and she eventually comes to accept Dicky as part of Micky’s team.
Melissa Leo is fantastic as Alice, Micky and Dicky’s mother. This is a woman who clearly has plans for her boys. She’s a self taught manager, fighting to prove she’s wiser and savvier than her Lowell, working class roots might suggest. In an unglamorous role, Leo brings authenticity and pathos to a character that could have just been a Mama Rose knock-off. Instead, Alice is a determined woman who is trying to look out for her sons.
One of those sons is Dicky, played to jittery perfection by Christian Bale. Dicky doesn’t know it but for about 75% of the movie he is fighting for his life. As Bale plays Dicky, he is something like a tempest – a nearly unstoppable force that rages through Lowell, plowing through – seemingly without care – anything in his path. Bale has been known to drastically alter his body for roles and this is no exception. He dropped several pounds to play the crack addicted fallen champ. He looks sickly, many of his teeth are MIA and he doesn’t stop moving or talking. Bale is nearly unrecognizable, except for his expert performance.
And at the center of it all is Micky, played to quiet perfection by Mark Wahlberg. This entire film was a passion project for Wahlberg and yet after all that fighting, he didn't go for an over the top, look-at-me performance. Instead, he affectingly underplays the fighter who is just trying to make his own way. The strong silent Micky is a terrific foil for Dicky, who is basically chaos incarnate. Wahlberg’s Micky simmers throughout the film, fighting to stay calm and keep everyone happy. When he finally reaches his boiling point, Wahlberg throws a knock out body blow to everyone around him, as he takes a stand and fights for himself: You think you know me? You think you know what’s best for me? Well you don’t. Only I do, so stop fighting with each other and help me. Wahlberg’s quiet strength up to that point makes this pivotal moment all the more powerful.
With a strong script, skillful direction and stellar performances across the board, The Fighter is justifably one of the top contenders this award season.