I think we’re wasting money on all the “Just Say No” programs we think are going to keep kids off drugs. Two hours with someone like Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) should convince anyone that drugs are a one-way ticket to nowhere. The first time we see him in The Fighter, the ex-boxer is living for two things: his rose-colored memories of the time he knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard and his next vial of crack.
As the movie opens, a semi-delusional Dicky is enjoying the spotlight of an HBO documentary that he thinks is the beginning of his comeback. His half-brother, Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) is an up-and-comer in danger of being a “never-was.” His twin Achilles Heels seems to be his almost reflexive hero worship of his older brother and the smothering influence of their mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), a domineering control freak whose uterus has also produced a passel of seven daughters who all seem to serve as her posse. As Mickey’s manager, Alice never seems to find any quality fights for him and seems blind to Dicky’s numerous faults, basking in the reflection of his fast-fading glory.
You really think your family's lookin' out for you?
Outnumbered by his mother and sisters, Micky seems unable to stand up for himself until a no-nonsense bartender named Charlene (Amy Adams) starts to help him remember where his testicles are. Before Micky can stand up for himself, however, things really hit their nadir after Micky loses an embarrassing fight that Alice arranged. Dicky’s harebrained scheme to pimp his Cambodian girl friend to help him steal cars lands him in jail and leaves Micky with a broken hand when he tries to protect Dicky from the police.
With the help of Micky’s father (Jack McGee), a local businessman comes to Micky with an offer to put his career back on track, but there are two conditions: No Alice and no Dicky.
Under the skin, The Fighter is basically a Rocky story about an underdog getting his big chance and succeeding against all the obstacles, but it hides those roots under a compelling portrayal of a dysfunctional family dynamic. The sport only serves as a backdrop to a story that could happen in almost any arena of life. Melissa Leo is a force of nature as Alice. I knew she was a great actress back when she was on Homicide: Life on the Streets, so it’s gratifying to see her getting the mainstream accolades she deserves.
Christian Bale is almost unrecognizable as Dicky, disappearing into his Boston accent and deceptive crackhead bonhomie, while Mark Wahlberg shines in the lower-key role of a man who’s better than he believes he is. It takes a lot of subtlety to maintain a rooting interest in a character who basically lets himself be used as a doormat for the first half of the film.
As the woman who helps Micky recover his self-respect, Amy Adams brings a flinty resolve so different from the sunny, wide-eyed characters she’s known for. To play Charlene, the ex-college athlete who doesn’t want to see Micky waste his talent like she did, she has to stand toe-to-toe with Melissa Leo and does so in scene after scene.
Boxing movies aren’t always rigorously authentic inside the ring, probably trying to hide the fact that their actors aren’t really boxers. Even Raging Bull, where Robert DeNiro practically turned himself into a real boxer, used a degree of stylization to highlight the brutality that Martin Scorcese saw in the sport. The fight scenes in this film, however, have a level of reality that had me believing that Mark Wahlberg could contend for the title. Considering the years of preparation that the actor put into the role, going beyond DeNiro’s dedication and training in a gym for four years with a real boxing coach, he probably could.
Combine that level of reality with a lean, uncompromising script and superb performance from its core players, The Fighter goes beyond being a good boxing movie and stands on its own as a first-rate drama.