Before The Fighter, the last boxing film I saw was Tyson. The documentary showed boxing to be a sport for which success hinges upon each boxer’s feelings of security, popularity, success and importance in their whole life, not just in the ring. The Fighter claims no differently. Boxing is a battle of confidence as much as a battle of fitness. Many factors must line up in order to hit that winning streak: family relationships, money issues, home and lifestyle, control of substance abuse, a healthy relationship, age, fitness, and perhaps most importantly, finding the right trainer to build them up emotionally and physically. This is little surprise when we take a moment to consider that boxing can be ferocious and injurious, a sport in which players wilfully inflict violence. What an incredibly difficult occupation, given that day-to-day violence is natural to our bodies but not to civilisation.
The life of “Irish” Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg in comfortable territory) was not one conducive to boxing success. Living in the shadow of older half-brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), a former mild success in the ring, Mickey’s family sees him as their next stepping stone toward family glory, and as their breadwinner. His success warms the seat for Dicky’s comeback, and their training together is filmed for a documentary of his intended re-emergence. This arrangement is held in place by the firm and manipulative presence of Alice, Mickey’s mother and manager. Mickey’s remote chance of success is set back by Dicky’s unreliability, a symptom of his crack addiction and self-involvement.
The status quo is disrupted by the arrival of Amy Adams’ drawling Charlene, an unsuccessful but intelligent woman who immediately points out Mickey’s poor chances of winning any match organised by his deeply selfish family. This conflict ensemble has produced some incredible performances, in particular Melissa Leo as Alice and Christian Bale’s much-talked-about junkie persona. A friend recently declared ‘I haven’t seen it yet, but Christian Bale you better be good – more than just looking like a junkie.’ Bale’s makeup was certainly impressive, and the actor has yet again dramatically adjusted his physique to fit the role, but he has indeed transfigured his mannerisms, speech and gait to craft a believable and tantalising performance. Bale co-ordinates Dicky’s changeability well, especially the suddenness of his moods and gestures, a trait reminiscent of Ben Kingsley's terrifying Logan from Sexy Beast. Melissa Leo is just as scintillating as the mid-80s glamazon mom who batters all naysayers down with her simplistic emotional blackmail and foul mouth. An attractive, vital-looking woman in real life, Leo transforms herself wonderfully into a shoulder-padded witch, fag dangling ungracefully from gold-overloaded fingers.
Mickey’s hometown of Lowe is painted masterfully as a faded and lacklustre district, impoverished and unsophisticated. To say Lowe has a robust community life isn’t quite truthful, gossip and grudge being the key features of local bar and diner scenes. What might be a spate of ‘Poverty Tourism’ (Winter’s Bone, Precious) is certainly an opportunity for creating cinematic character, and adding weight to a protagonist’s plight. It needn’t be ugly, necessarily, but what you might call ‘beautifully realised’. For instance, the only exception to the dusty, bleached-out look of the film is the startling red of blood in the ring and the shimmer of customised boxing robes. Perfect period costuming adds to the feeling of tiredness, awakening nostalgia.
Perhaps the most triumphant set furnishing of The Fighter is the leering presence of Mickey’s seven “ugly sisters” who all live at home with their mother and seem to share a collective brain and personality, formed like putty by Alice’s hand. These girls are at once the most comic and repulsive aspect of the film, a deeply sad demarcation of Alice’s dominion over her children, and yet a hilarious example of group fashion mentality: these are girls who could pass as slowly malfunctioning, partly electrocuted eighties robots.
Somewhat regrettably, The Fighter is structured as an up-and-down sports film, despite the fleshiest and strongest aspects being its dramatic sequences. It therefore contains excessive montage – including the ubiquitous training montage, and the familiar technique of splicing sports footage with other scenes to compare two characters' progress. Least enjoyable are emotional workout scenes set to rousing stadium/classic rock. A final match to galvanise the futures and relationships of the cast is unsurprisingly scheduled for the third act, and built up to on a distinctly 45 degree beeline. Despite this, The Fighter is one of the better examples of sports-themed cinema. It’s well written, clearly realised and certainly doesn’t pander, the complexity of relationships left intact for the audience to unravel. For fighting enthusiasts, the ring scenes are very well choreographed and director David O. Russell made the unusual, but wise decision not to splice historical footage with staged footage. The difficulty of reproducing a real, recorded event was very much worth the trouble.
The fighter is perhaps not a film with an unexpected twist, but being based on the true story of the Ward brothers and Mickey’s rise to light welterweight greatness, it has that extra level of heart-warming, “we’ll show you” kind of redemptive pleasure to it. A definite underdog story, and a study of character worthy of rapt attention.