David O. Russell launched into the film world with his notable war/drama/comedy Three Kings, did the existential comedy I Heart Huckabess after that, and has now come out with a boxing picture, The Fighter. The pieces don’t look like they’d fit together, but Russell’s sense of comedy and drama blends well with a cast that can do it justice.
Mark Wahlberg plays Micky Ward, the star boxer trying to reach big time glory with his family’s backing: Mama Ward manages and his trainer is brother Dicky (Christian Bale), whose claim to fame was fighting Sugar Ray Leonard. After too many battles with his family over the direction of his career, Micky starts moving his way up the food chain without the help/detriment of his family.
Christian Bale is emaciated again (see The Machinist, Rescue Dawn) as the cartoon character crackhead who keeps messing things up for Micky. Wahlberg meanwhile is the zen-like eye of the hurricane as his mother and girlfriend trade insults.
The film is billed as Wahlberg’s comeback story, but the story starts out with Bale being followed around by a film crew who are supposedly tracking the elder brother’s comeback. When it turns out, however, that it’s a documentary on crack addiction, Bale sobers up and starts getting his life straight.
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It’s this change in Bale’s character that steals the whole show. Dicky is a guy with real life problems he’s struggling to contain, while Micky just needs to win a few boxing matches. The final 1/3 of the film leaves you wanting to see the film about Dicky, not the average brother.
Which is one of the problems with the film–it lacks the sense of urgency of something like The Wrestler. Since Micky has his shit together, a big win won’t matter nearly as much as the brother fuck-up who turns golden. Without that boiling desire to see Micky win, it weakens the power of the film’s conclusion (though the epilogue moment buttresses that area).
Finally, the film takes a sharp turn as the bickering family/girlfriend dynamic that has occupied most of the run time is quickly reined in for Micky’s big fight. Had more time been spent developing that transition, it would have felt less like they discarded one of the driving plot elements to skip to the end.
Overall, The Fighter is a good drama with quality performances, especially from Bale. Sometimes sad, sometimes funny, you’ll be rooting for both guys when the ultimate showdown begins.