Oscar Movie Month: "The Fighter" Review

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

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Rating: R
Length: 116 minutes
Release Date: December 17, 2010
Directed by: David O. Russell
Genre: Biography, Drama, Sport

"The Fighter" is the biographical story of boxer Irish Micky Ward, a three-time New England Golden Gloves champion who turned professional in 1985. Ward is portrayed by Academy Award nominee Mark Wahlberg. Like Ward, Wahlberg is a product of a working-class neighborhood in Massachusetts. In fact, Wahlberg was inspired to take on the part because of his real-life acquaintance with Ward. Though Ward's boxing career plays a key role in the film, the boxer's family relationships play at least as large a role in the storyline. Ward and his older brother, Dicky, are followed by a documentary film crew. Dicky believes the crew is documenting his comeback, but that conclusion is suspect to other characters and to viewers. Micky's training and preparation are frequently derailed by Dicky's antics, as the older brother struggles with a serious drug problem and brushes with the law.

"The Fighter" presents a good story with all of the complexities of a family drama interwoven with the "local boy made good" tale of Ward's triumph as a boxer. The cast is nothing short of overwhelming. Christian Bale delivers such a powerful and convincing performance as drug-addled Dicky Ward that he is barely recognizable from more traditional roles. His Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor was well earned, as was Melissa Leo's Best Supporting Actress nod. As the pair's mother and Ward's manager, Leo has the protective working-class mom down cold. Amy Adams, as a neighborhood bartender turned Ward's loyal and sometimes brash girlfriend, bears no resemblance to the cartoon princess who shone in "Enchanted."  If not for the power of Leo's performance, Adams might well have carried away that Oscar herself; she also received a Best Supporting Actress nomination.

Any lingering skepticism about Marky Mark moving into acting should have been laid to rest with "The Departed." However, if any doubt remained, "The Fighter" eliminates it. The role might seem a natural in the wake of Wahlberg's starring role in "Invincible," another local sports hero tale. Still, this character required much more, and Wahlberg delivered. He spent four years preparing for the role, working out for hours in the morning before reporting to the sets of the six other movies he filmed during that time. The actor holds his own as the star of a movie populated by arguably the highest-caliber supporting cast in recent history.

As Ward struggles with loyalty to his family, concern for his brother and deference to his mother, Charlene (Amy Adams) gives him the strength to focus on his own future. The themes are familiar to anyone with a close-knit yet dysfunctional family, and it is easy to understand both Ward's reluctance to draw a line in the sand and Charlene's frustration when he fails to do so. Every step along Ward's arduous climb up the ladder in professional boxing is complicated by one or more of the relationships in his life, from his mother's questionable decisions regarding his career to his relationship with his young daughter.

Ultimately, each of the core characters has to come to terms with the realities of his life and the lives of those closest to him. "The Fighter" is inspirational not just for the way that Ward fights his way out of a working-class neighborhood to become a champion but because of the strength underlying his family ties and the determination all around. Although the story line is predictable, even to those unfamiliar with Ward's story, there are no two-dimensional or clich├ęd characters in this film.

Bale's Dicky Ward lost his own career to crack addiction and seems destined to cost his younger brother as much, yet Dicky is a sympathetic character, and it is more heartbreaking than infuriating when he drifts off task to indulge. Their mother is clearly out of her depth, yet her iron-fisted control of Micky's career is understandable in the wake of what her older son has suffered. It is impossible not to root for all of them: for Micky and Charlene to stay together, for Dicky to get clean and reclaim his life, for Micky to win his next fight and advance up the ladder, and for his mom to have the peace and satisfaction of seeing her family headed in the right direction.

"The Fighter" is an obvious choice for boxing fans, especially fans of Micky or Dicky Ward. It is also a great pick for fans of the victorious underdog sports genre. But, this movie is not just for sports fans, and it is not just a run-of-the-mill sporting victory tale. There is something for anyone who enjoys a good drama in this film, and the performances turned in by Bale, Leo and Adams are not to be missed.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5