There’s two things you need to know to figure out The Fighter. One: it’s based on a true story. Second: it’s a boxing movie. Put together the plot yet? Can you guess how it ends? There’s not a single surprise in the entire course of this movie, except how good it all is.
Ever since the days of Rocky, America has loved the underdog, the regular Joe who comes out of nowhere to win one for the rest of us little people. So when a story as good as that of small time boxer Micky Ward, played here by Mark Wahlberg, actually exists, it makes instant fodder for the masses. But, that’s only half the story. In the film we are first introduced not to the titular fighter, but his older brother, the big talking former hero of Lowell, Mass, Dicky (Christian Bale). Turns out Dicky is the subject of a documentary chronicling his comeback to the ring, or so he assumes. In reality, Dicky is a crack-head, training Micky but more often than not found jumping into dumpsters out the second story window where he gets high.
And it’s quickly revealed that Dicky is the real heart of the film, played by an almost unrecognizable Bale, in one of his finest performances since, well, ever. He dominates the screen when he’s around, pushing Micky into the sidelines and out of the focus. In fact, Micky’s whole family is casting a shadow over his life. His high strung manager mother (Melissa Leo) and legion of harpy sisters, seven of them, have stunted him almost to the point of having no real personality. Only when Micky meets and begins a relationship with Charlene (Amy Adams) does he really stat to find his own voice and take on an active role in his career as a fighter.
The film takes all of the usual steps in exploring the dynamics of Micky’s family. There are the predictable beats in the movie, like fights lost and relationships on the ropes, but The Fighter is good enough to keep our attention even through these labored cliches. In fact, once Dicky is finally faced with his addiction, the documentary was on his crack use, not his comeback, he makes as big a turnaround as Micky does, and everything ends in a predictable but surprisingly satisfying climax.
Director David O Russell has made some of my favorite movies and showcased some of Wahlberg’s best performances to date, the dynamic Three Kings and the hilariously philosophic I Heart Huckabees. And while The Fighter is nowhere near as imaginative as his previous films, Russell still excels at every aspect of film making here. Yet, again it’s Bale who should be receiving more recognition for his role, he disappears into the skin of Dicky. Seriously, my friend didn’t even know it was him until I said something. And it doesn’t get any better than Dicky trying to con a group of Cambodians or screaming “WHEEAD YA PAAHK THE CAAA-AAHH?!?” in a wicked New England accent. It really doesn’t.