Far more about family than boxing, The Fighter stars Mark Wahlberg as Mickey Ward, a middling junior welterweight professional boxer from Lowell, Massachusetts, who grew up with several sisters and an older half-brother, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), a once talented boxer who wasted his career away on crack and tomfoolery.
Everyone is well-cast and the performances, especially that of Bale, are top notch. The film includes clips of the real Mickey and Dicky during the closing credits and Bale is spot-on in his portrayal. The biggest surprise for me, however, was Amy Adams putting out a strong performance far outside her comfort zone by playing against type.
The script has been kicked around Hollywood for the better part of the decade with several names attached to direct (Martin Scorsese, Darren Aronofsky) and star (Brad Pitt, Matt Damon). Eventually David O. Russell was given the chance to direct Wahlberg and Bale. Maybe they should have waited a little longer.
The Fighter isn’t a bad film by any stretch, but it feels wasteful. The first-half of the film sets up Mickey’s relationship to his family, Dickey’s drug addiction, and gives you the feel of Lowell, Massachusetts. All of this works well. This section of the movie provides several great scenes and opportunities for each of the stars to shine. It also means the director has spent more than half the film’s running time doing little more than setting up the plot.
By the time we actually get to the real crux of the film we’re more than 50 minutes in. Had the film been three hours long this wouldn’t be an issue, but with a running time less than two hours everything else has to be rushed into the film’s final hour. By the time we get to the story of Dickey helping his brother (the only piece of the film being marketed) there’s barely any time left at all. The second-half feels rushed with multiple montages and very little of the character driven drama found in the movie’s earlier scenes.
For a sports movie The Fighter is far from special. The fight sequences are unimaginative and little more than montages. I had hoped a filmmaker like Russell would find a way to make the fights more visual interesting than any average fight flick. Not only does he not give us anything new, each of the fights is truncated into little more than a footnote. Even Mickey’s final fight is raced through before any real suspense can be built. There’s even one montage which feels eerily reminiscent of Rocky III.
One of the best decisions was to shoot the film in Lowell, Massachusetts, giving The Fighter a realistic look and feel. Because so much of the movie is spent in Lowell the town becomes another character in the story. The sequences with Mickey and his dysfunctional family play well, in part, by the added weight of this small struggling town pushing down on them.
You’ll recognize Melissa Leo, cast as Mickey’s mother and manager, but his sisters (who seem to take more to Dicky’s insane side of the family), who aren’t as well known, as a group perfectly capture the loyalty, insanity, and intrusive behavior of the family that stunts Mickey’s sense of self-preservation – at least until he meets Charlene (Adams).
Even though the final half of the film is far less impressive than the first, The Fighter is still definitely worth seeing. Russell does put his spin on the story (at least early on), as expected. I would have liked a little more cohesive tale (and far less montage), but much like the film’s main character The Fighter is more of a survivor than a winner.