Monday, December 20, 2010

Love: The Fighter

The Fighter opens with Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) sitting on a couch talking about their relationship for a documentary film crew.  "Taught him everything he knows,"  Eklund informs us, looking as excitable as a pop-eyed stick figure. The scene is our introduction to the brothers.  Micky, the younger of the two, idolizes Dicky.  See, Dicky once downed Sugar Ray Leonard in a match.  He's got an outdated reputation as the pride of their hometown.  About three minutes into the movie and you realize that what you'll be getting isn't anything like what the almost drippingly sentimental, overly inspirational trailer was selling.  This is a David O. Russell film.  In the wake of I Heart Huckabees, he hasn't taken to extremes to play The Fighter totally straight.  There's humor here, actual entertainment.

Though  built up around that same old simple story, The Fighter is not your average underdog sports story.  In fact, it's less about the boxing than it is about the over-the-top, based on a true story, family melodrama.  It's a good thing.  There are enough standout boxing films that play it ultra straight, The Fighter didn't need to squeeze into a class already dominated by heavy hitters like Raging Bull or Rocky.  Russell approaches the material as if he's not even trying to compete with those other films.  He's got this story, he wants to tell it, there's a little bit of tension but no proper villains.  Micky is a sweet-natured kid too dominated by his overbearing family, Dicky is a wild eyed crackhead ex-con...but perhaps the nicest, funniest, most well-intentioned one around.  Nah.  No one's here to make you feel depressed and then lift you up with a little glimmer of sucker punch hope, they're just here for the proverbial family shitshow, good times and bad.  Lemme tell you right now: the Wards put on a first rate shitshow.
The Fighter is Mark Wahlberg's dream project, and one that took a lot to get off the ground.  Wahlberg spent four years training to get into the proper shape to play "Irish" Micky Ward, in the meantime, the film bounced between directors, at one point landing in the lap of Darren Aronofsky (who wound up serving as executive producer).  For what it's worth, Wahlberg plays Micky with heart.  He comes across as young here; guileless, likable, and obviously struggling between moving on with his bartender girlfriend (Amy Adams) to greener, more financially lucrative pastures, or remaining under the management of his loudmouthed proud mama (Frozen River's Melissa Leo) and her supportive posse of his seven sisters.  That said, while his character is the warm little pushed-around center of the film, the other actors seem to outshine him scene after scene.  This is a film filled with fighters.  Every character has their own little battle going on (though the sisters generally act as one hive collective of massively teased hair).  Melissa Leo's got serious 'tude, Amy Adams manages to shirk her peaches and cream princess demeanor for genuine brass, Jack McGee, who plays Micky's surprisingly bold father, is winning.  But, it's Christian Bale who makes the movie.

Bale nails it.  As Dicky Eklund, he's almost completely unrecognizable.  The actor has become famous for undergoing drastic physical changes to slip into his roles; for Dicky he drops 30 pounds, gets a bit of a chicken neck going, and transforms into a cartoon character.  Early on, as Dicky parades down the street for the camera crews shooting what he believes to be a documentary on his career comeback  (but which is actually an HBO special studying the victims of crack addiction in America), he's so animated, so full of uncharacteristic vitality, that it literally seems as though you could drop that Acme anvil on his head and he'd pop right back up to go after that road runner.  Yet, he's in full control of Dicky's mercurial nature.  He's en pointe with the comedic timing when he needs to be, but never fully deserving of being referred to as 'goofy'.  Bale catches all of Dicky's character.  He seems to understand the push pull of the addiction, the well-meaning mama's boy lurking beneath the sullen skin of a man who knows he's nothing but a joke in the eyes of the world.  That struggle makes an effortless transition to the screen.  When The Fighter starts to get a little too close to those heartwarming cliches, Bale's performance is the one that seems to single-handedly insure it never fully makes it to that Blind Side level of saccharine.  While there might not be much new presented in The Fighter, the story it has is expertly told and superbly acted.  A really pleasant surprise.

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