Nov 20, 2010

REVIEW: The Fighter (dir. David O. Russell)

The Fighter is David O Russell's film about boxer Mickey Ward, an Irish bantamweight from Lowell Massachussetts famous for devastating his opponents, in late rounds, with a single blow to the kidneys, but who struggled to escape the needy suction-grasp of his scrappy, fractious family. Not least among these is his brother Dicky, here played by Christian Bale, an ex-boxer himself whose duties as Mickey's trainer are consistently squashed by his overriding need to smoke crack with his coco-pops. I've an allergy to over-hyped performances, which have an uncanny knack of turning out to be over-acted, but here the over-acting is built in from the start: an antic, emaciated jack-o-lantern, Dicky hoovers up attention from the documentary cameras following him around, supposedly to record his "comeback" for HBO but in fact to make a film about addiction. With his thinning hair and sunken eyes, which threaten at times to simply roll out of his skull and across the floor, Bale recalls something of the lean, crackerjack energy of De Niro's Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, powering this film along to such a ferocious degree that, for its first hour at least, The Fighter seems unbeatable. Scene by scene it has more of an unpredictable crackle, more coarse vitality, than any film released this year. Russell has a terrific feel for the black electricity running through this family. In addition to Bale's crack addict brother, we get a mother played by Melissa Leo, a chain-smoking dragon with ruby-red talons who cannot see why Mickey's career can't be managed entirely infra-dig, plus a small army of sisters, of varying shades of peroxide-blond, who show up for the most seemingly intimate of scenes — tete-a-tetes, arguments, even, at one point, a quiet Sunday morning scene with Mickey in bed with his girlfriend (Amy Adama) — in order to offer their opinions like some spiteful, caterwauling Greek chorus. You feel like Mickey is never going to escape this serpentine brood, which brings us to the only problem with The Fighter, namely the fighter at its centre. To put it bluntly: he ain't got no fight. He's a slugger and a champ, and his blow to the kidneys looks unsurviveable, but out of the ring, he's a pussycat, a distant relative of Wahlberg's befuddled stud in Boogie Nights, more fought over than fighting, his voice rising to soft imploring pitch as he tries to keep the peace between his warring factions. It took a crazy courage for Russell to make this film: the first motion picture about a codependent boxer. If Oprah walked on and handed him Melody Beattie's Co-Dependent No More the whole film would be over. All this has a basis in fact; even the small snippet of documentary footage showing the real-life Ward and his brother reveals a lop-sided double act in which Ward struggles to get a word in edge-wise. It was certainly decent of Wahlberg, who struggled for years to haul this film to the screen, to reproduce that dynamic so faithfully and allow himself to be so systematically overshadowed, but The Fighter visibly dims when Bale is off-screen, particularly during the long middle stretch of the movie in which Dicky serves time for assaulting a police officer. Simply put, Wahlberg can't hold the screen on his own, while his love scenes with Amy Adams serve only to remind us that there are few things less appetising than the sight of Mark Wahlberg plunging his tongue into some young actresses's mouth. Nobody's asking him to be Cary Grant but you can't help but wonder what a film The Fighter would have been if Russell had yoked to his film to a real powerhouse performer, or at least shown us why Mickey fought — who's face he imagined on the end of his glove. De Niro's Jake La Motta boxed his own shadow, fighting "as if he deserved to die" in Scorsese's words. Stallone's Rocky soaked up punches masochistically, on behalf of a country daring itself to win again. Wahlberg simply punches away, as if at a side of meat. You have no idea where those punches are coming from, or what they're connecting with. B


  1. Watch the interviews, trailers and behind the scenes of The Fighter and many more videos.

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