What's that you say? David O. Russell, the guy who directed Spanking the Monkey, Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees made a boxing movie? Yes it's true that the king of quirky has made a straightforward boxing pic based on a true story, fueled by performances of compelling grit and layered intensities, simply entitled The Fighter.
It's a drama about boxer "Irish" Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg), an up-and-coming welterweight who is being groomed to become the next ''pride of Lowell, Mass.," by his older half brother, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), a local boxing legend-turned-crack-addict and his overly imposing manager/mother, Alice (Melissa Leo).
Though it's virtually impossible to make a boxing movie without drawing comparisons to Rocky, Raging Bull, Million Dollar Baby and The Wrestler, this film more resembles On the Waterfront, as it focuses more on the psychological pain and connection to family than the actual boxing scenes.
Once again, we have a tough and somber version of Massachusetts' mean streets, this time centered in Lowell, the birthplace of America's industrial revolution and Jack Kerouac. Showcasing the toxic interaction between families that are usually more dramatized by Eugene O'Neill, the filmmaking alone holds it own in terms of originality.
As we follow the career of Mickey and the downfall of Dicky, we also get to see all the simmering family dysfunctions. It's almost reminiscent of a reality show with their domestic drama playing out in full view of innocent bystanders. Across town lies the den of drug addicts who seem to just wallow in crack smoke. Russell's use of non-actors in these roles proves to be a stroke of genius. The scenes have that uncomfortable feeling of people who mean well, but get directly under your skin.
There's something inherently authentic about the story and performances. Bale overdoes it from the get-go, but after you get over his thespian showboating, you lock into his character. Wahlberg plays it solid and laidback only exploding when necessary. In their defense, real footage of Dicky and Mickey at the ending credits makes it clear they were on the mark. Amy Adams as Micky's girlfriend Charlene sheds her nice girl image in a finely honed performance of a feisty college dropout/ bartender with high hopes. Mickey O'Keefe, in a surprisingly astonishing performance, plays himself, a sergeant for the Lowell Police Department in Massachusetts (as of 2010). In real life, he was Mickey's mentor during his prolific boxing career.
Fighter quickly moves past the corny formulaic mush. The requisite tension is achieved leading up to the championship bout and the Rocky-esque training montages are kept short. The rivalries between promoters and trainers could've been handled as good vs. evil instead played out as almost pure dysfunction. Shot with intimacy, all the little intricacies of human emotion resonate as the drunken aspirations from Looserville rise and fall like the tide.
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo
Directed by David O. Russell