Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Review: "The Fighter"

A lot of boxing movies profess to be about human relationships, when all they really care about is staging mayhem in the ring. Take a look at the "Rocky" movies, in which the fighter's personal life became more and more of a sideshow to the bloodletting.

"The Fighter" is a true anomaly, then: A moving drama about two brothers in which boxing is merely a backdrop for their familial tussles.

Mark Wahlberg plays Micky Ward, a welterweight legendary for his ability to withstand punishment, and Christian Bale is his brother Dickie Eklund, a former contender turned crack addict. Dickie is "The Pride of Lowell," their rough-hewn hometown, skating by on the past glory of having once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard (but lost the fight).

Wahlberg is a solid, emotionally resonant presence as Micky, the little brother perpetually in the shadow who learns to step into the light. But Bale is lights out as Dickie, in a vibrant performance as a skeevy, squirrely screw-up who knows he's a burden on others, but can't shake his bad habits.

With his face leaned out to almost emaciated, broken smile and patchy hair, Bale is a striking, pitiable figure who nevertheless seems to have boundless reserves of energy and cockiness. He's a walking car wreck, and we can't look away.

David O. Russell directs -- his first feature in six years; payback for nasty run-ins with George Clooney and Lily Tomlin? -- with a steady, sure hand. At first glance the Ward/Eklund clan seems like a ridiculous caricature of blue-collar resentfulness and big, awful hairdos. But over time we come to care about this screeching, warring clan.

Melissa Leo, in a terrific performance of her own, plays their mother Alice, whose love for her children is so deep that doesn't see how she strangles them. She insists on acting as Micky's manager and keeping Dickie as the trainer, despite the fact his career is languishing, and Dickie doesn't even show up to workouts.

An HBO camera crew is following Dickie around, and he loudly tells everyone it's for a documentary about his comeback -- despite the fact that he is 40 years old and, as Micky observes, "doesn't have a tooth in his head that's his own." Later, he will be embarrassed by the reflection it shows.

After a promising start, Micky's had a bad run of losses. His situation isn't helped by Dickie cajoling him into a last-minute bout against a fighter who's 20 pounds heavier -- in a sport where ounces and inches are carefully measured and leveraged.

Micky doesn't even have the confidence to approach Charlene (Amy Adams), the plucky bartender at the local hangout, without a shot in the arm from his father (Jack McGee). He takes her to see a subtitled movie on the snobby side of town, not because he's trying to impress her but because he's ashamed to show his battered face in Lowell.

Charlene and Alice are like oil and water -- not to mention Micky's seemingly endless gaggle of sisters, who label Charlene "MTV girl" and see her as pulling their brother away from the family. These women seem silly at first, but you realize the bond they zealously protect is the most important thing in their world.

I kept expecting "The Fighter" to spill into the boxing ring and stay there, but screenwriters Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson wisely keep the focus on the braying, barking family. If you take out the big fight at the end -- which, tellingly, isn't among those Ward fought that sportswriters have dubbed the greatest contests ever -- I doubt there's even 10 minutes of boxing action.

Here's a gut-punch lesson: Sometimes those closest to you can be a poison. And sometimes you've swallowed so much of that venom, you can't stand to have it out of your bloodstream.

3.5 stars out of four

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