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“The Fighter” Review

Every year, there seems to be a film that I go into not expecting anything from and not really looking forward to, whatsoever. Then, I see it, and my opinion of the film couldn’t shift more radically. This year, that film is David O’Russell’s “The Fighter.”

There were many aspects that I had stacked up against this film before viewing it. One was, let’s face it, it’s a boxing movie, and not since “Raging Bull” has a film about that particular sport ever come close to blowing me away. Boxing films are also usually a bit too sentimental for my taste. Also, I wasn’t sure if maverick director David O’Russell would be able to hold on to his originality for this venture, or if he would effectively sell out in the face of potential box office success. All of these questions would be answered.

“The Fighter” tells the very true story of Mickey Ward, played by Mark Wahlberg, a street cleaner from Boston with dreams of being a boxer. However, his career has been managed, or rather mis-managed, his whole life by his over-bearing mother (Melissa Leo) and former boxer turned crack-addict brother, Dickey Ward (Christian Bale). One day, he meets his golden ticket in the form of a sexy bartender (Amy Adams) who convinces him to ditch his dysfunctional family in order to succeed at his dream. However, his loved ones refuse to go quietly and the odd group must find a way to work together to achieve any hope of victory.

This film is phenomenal. It had me from the opening shots of Dickey air-punching Mickey from a POV approach. It had me from Mickey calling his father a silverback gorilla after he chases down his stoned son through a backyard. It had me when it literally made fun of me, and other film snobs, when Mickey tries to show off by taking Adams to a snooty, French arthouse film. This film had me for nearly the entire film.

David O’Russell (“Three Kings,” “I Heart Huckabees”) has never quite made a movie like this before. Even when his former fare occasionally gets serious, it never loses its quirky, tongue-in-cheek essence. Here, the director is not necessarily fearless or even experimental, in a word, but not beholding to expectations of what this should be like if he made it. It’s somewhere between a crowd-pleasing, fist-pounding extravaganza and a subtle character study into the depths of family, addiction and self-worth.

One thing’s for sure about both the writing and direction of “The Fighter.” It’s all heart. Despite a few hitches in regard to how Mickey’s motley crew of an entourage comes together, the film almost never feels superficial or forced. The characters and their relationships all feel real and this family dynamic is one that will not soon be forgotten in the world of cinema. Another important note pertains to the setting. It seems that everywhere one turns now, there is a “Boston-themed” movie. “The Departed,” “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town” and “Mystic River.” Many of these are phenomenal films. Yet of all of them, it’s “The Fighter” that truly uses the community atmosphere of Boston as not only a setting, but a character in itself. The streets and their people breathe the material and give it new life.

If the Oscars had ever got around to creating a “Best Ensemble Cast” award (they won’t, but there’s always wishful thinking), I don’t see how any film could possibly be more deserving of such an honor this year than the one in question. Every performance pulls its weight and is worthy of recognition. Even the bit parts, from Ward’s half dozen sisters, his rebellious father and a charismatic cop-turned-trainer whose character actually played himself in the film. Wahlberg is obviously the weakest link, and yet it is still one of his best turns.

Amy Adams, who has never had a more rebellious or fiery part, makes the audience fall head over heels for her. Meanwhile, the other female performance is one for the ages. I remember back when Melissa Leo had a much smaller and unrecognized role in Alejandro Gaonzalez Inarritu’s “21 Grams,” and I was the only one who was noting her performances as one of the highlights. Now, she’s two steps away from potentially winning an Academy Award. To go from obscurity to recognition this late in life cannot be the easiest feat, and yet Leo has more than proven that it can be done.

It’s no joke, however, that this film belongs to Christian Bale. Bale has had a long career with ups and downs and some very fine performances dating all the way back to his incredible childhood role in Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun.” Fans of his have long wondered when he would finally come across the role that would land him an Oscar nomination. I have a feeling that with this role, the buck won’t stop with just a nomination. This is the crowning jewel of Bale’s relatively young career. He walks a thin character tightrope between an overbearing, drug-addicted older brother whom the audience loathes and a sympathetic, washed-up father and former boxer who can’t seem to catch a break. Both elements of the role he has nailed down to a “t” and his work makes the audience await his every emotion with eager anticipation.

Probably the biggest question on my mind when entering into this film was whether it would be a “Rocky” or a “Raging Bull,” as it seems that nearly all boxing movies are in one way or another. I was pleasantly surprised to discover the answer: neither. “The Fighter” is an almost wholly original concept for a boxing film, or any film. It’s as gritty as it is lofty and as exciting as it is dramatic. It’s as much an in-depth character-study as it is a gloriously narrative-driven journey of hope and adventure. Throw in a few phenomenal performances, and you’ve got one of the best films of 2010.

GRADES:           A-            * * * * 1/2 / * * * * *           9.0 / 10.0

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  1. backtodavid
    January 6, 2011 at 3:20 pm

    Completely agree!

  2. Sudduthman
    January 7, 2011 at 4:35 pm

    You nailed it!

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