Fighter, The (2010): Christian Bale’s Oscar-Caliber Performance

The boxing serio-comedy “The Fighter,” David O. Russell’s fifth feature, is his broadest and most chaotic, but also his most commercial and crowd-pleasing, movie to date.

Boasting Oscar-caliber performances from Christian Bale and Melissa Leo (both in the supporting league), “The Fighter” is an enjoyable working-class tale, inspired by the true story of Micky Ward (played by Mark Wahlberg) and his half-brother Dicky Eklund (Bale).
Paramount has shrewdly decided not to show the film at festivals, instead assigning it a prestigious spot at the end of the year, when the Oscar stuff pictures are released. Since the budget is rather small (around $20 million), the studio stands a chance not only to recoup the expense but also make a profit, due to strong word-of-mouth and the film’s feel-good nature.
Having made the audacious incest indie “Spanking the Monkey,” the original adoption comedy “Flirting with Disaster,” and the superlative war film “Three Kings,” Russell has been a critics darling, but “The Fighter” is too mainstream to be embraced by the more cerebral reviewers.
The film is structurally messy, perhaps a reflection of the fact that Russell, who usually writes his scripts, has not done it this time. The screenplay is credited to Scott Silver (“8 Mile”), Paul Tamasy (the “Air Bud” movies) and Eric Johnson, from a story by Tamasy, Johnson and Keith Dorrington.
“The Fighter” has had a turbulent history: The movie has changed several directors and stars over the past few years. Darren Aronofsky (who’s credited as one of many producers) was going to direct before he left to do “The Wrestler,” and at one point, Brad Pitt was attached to the project. (According to the credits, there are 6 producers, 5 exec-producers, and 2 associate producers.)
As a boxing movie, “The Fighter” doesn’t add much to the reliable, overpopulated genre, whose highlights over the past thee decades include Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky,” which won the 1976 Best Picture Oscar, and Scorsese’s Raging Bull,” the black-and-white stylized, brutal 1980 Oscar-nominated work, which was chosen by critics (including me) as the best film of the 1980s.
In tone, ideology, and artistic quality, “The Fighter” is closer to the populist and crow-pleasing “Rocky,” with a touch of Jim Sheridan’s “The Boxer,’ than to the grim and more poignant “Raging Bull.”
“What about my brother?” says Micky Ward at one point in the story. “He taught me everything I know. I can’t do it without him.” This sentence pretty much sums up the film’s ideological message, stressing the importance of family ties, even if they are more than a bit dysfunctional and counter-productive.
Narratively, the tale switches back and forth between the chaotic professional arena (the ring, the gym) and the messy personal and family lives of the two siblings, who have no less than seven sisters, all eccentric, all outspoken, who seem to be present in every family argument and occasion (sort of a comic chorus in a Greek tragedy).
The story begins as Dicky, the town’s pride who once went toe-to-toe with Sugar Ray Leonard, has fallen on hard times.  He’s now a drug-addict and as such a subject an HBO documentary. But he’s a harmless, sympathetic guy, who’s liked by most people in the neighborhood, but one who dreads his overprotective mother. (He represents a peculiar version of the type of a “Mama’s Boy)
Meanwhile, Micky has become the family’s fighter, with his fledgling career managed by his loving but domineering and flamboyant mother Alice (Melissa Leo in a flashy performance).
Yet, despite Micky’sgutsy left hook, he keeps getting punished in the ring. When Micky’s latest mismatched fight nearly kills him, he is persuaded by his tough new girlfriend, Charlene (Amy Adams), ho works as a bartender, to split with his family, pursue his own interests and train without his troubled brother.
The eternal career versus family dilemma? You bet. Except this movie wants to have it both ways.
Micky gets the shot at a title fight, but it soon becomes clear that it will take his brother and the whole family of mother and sisters to get him there. Defying the naysayers, Micky sets out on a bid for redemption that will bring Dicky, Charlene, Alice and the entire Ward/Eklund brood back, resulting in one of the sport’s most surprising strings of victories.
In its good moments, “The Fighter” is a gritty, affectionately humorous, stirring comeback tale of an unlikely boxing hero, “Irish” Micky Ward.  In the course of the story, Micky and his half-brother Dicky argue a lot and separate several times as opponents, before coming together as brothers in a scrappy fight to win a long-shot championship and strengthen the bonds of their entire family.
As a fighter, Micky was known for taking sustained beating for several rounds, only to come back and knock out his opponents with a strategic left hook.  In the end, Micky becomes a champion and a resilient and loyal battler who fought hard for everything, but hardest of all for his family.
“The Fighter” is a personal film for Mark Walberg, who was instrumental in its making and gives an honorably authentic performance in the lead.  Wahlberg has been training for five years, day after day, hoping the movie will be made. Ward grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, which serves as the film’s location, about an hour from where Wahlberg, who also belongs to a family of nine children, grew up.
But ultimately the film belongs to Melissa Leo and Christian Bale, who claim (and steal) every scene they’re in. Both Leo and Bale are known for their acting chops and ability to transform themselves, both physically and mentally, for their roles.
Bale, a naturally handsome actor, is barely recognizable here, having lost a substantial amount of weight, and adopting a different set of gestures and manners.
If there’s justice, Bale will receive his first Oscar nomination as Supporting Actor, and Leo her second, following her Best Actress nomination two years ago in the indie “Frozen River.”
Cast
Micky Ward – Mark Wahlberg
Dicky Eklund – Christian Bale
Charlene Fleming – Amy Adams
Alice Ward – Melissa Leo
Credits
A Paramount release presented with Relativity Media in association with the Weinstein Co. of a Relativity Media, Mandeville Films, Closest to the Hole production.
Produced by David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman, Ryan Kavanaugh, Mark Wahlberg, Dorothy Aufiero, Paul Tamasy.
Executive producers, Tucker Tooley, Darren Aronofsky, Leslie Varrelman, Keith Dorrington, Eric Johnson.
Co-producers, Jeff Waxman, Kenneth Halsband.
Directed by David O. Russell.
Screenplay, Scott Silvery, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson; story, Keith Dorrington, Tamasy, Johnson.
Camera, Hoyte Van Hoytema.
Editor, Pamela Martin.
Music, Michael Brook; music supervisors, Happy Walters, Season Kent.
Production designer, Judy Becker.
Art director, Laura Ballinger Gardner; set decorator, Gene Serdena.
Sound, Anton Gold; supervising sound editor, Odin Benitez; re-recording mixers, John Ross, Myron Nettinga.
Running time: 115 Minutes.
The movie world-premiered at the 2010 AFI Film Fest as its “Secret Screening.”