Set in Lowell, Massachusetts, a city known primarily for its involvement in the inception of CVS pharmacies (yup, it all started here) and Moxie (the first soft drink to be mass produced, although it was started by Dr. Augustin Thompson as a patent medicine for nervousness and insomnia – just a quick bit of trivia), David O. Russell’s (“Three Kings,” “Flirting with Disaster”) critically-acclaimed “The Fighter” stars Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale as Mickey Ward and Dicky Eklund – another hot commodity from Lowell. Born and raised in Massachusetts, alongside their unintentionally overbearing mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), and hard-assed father, George (Jack McGee), Mickey and Dickey have always wanted to be professional boxers, in fact, Eklund once had a promising career, which was ultimately tossed aside by his addiction to crack; a habit that has taken hold of Dickey, both professionally and personally. This leaves Micky a.k.a “Irish” with a hard decision; he must both dismiss his brother as his personal trainer and hire a Vegas fat cat to do the job, thus ignoring the very family values that the Wards hold sacred or continue to support his brother’s descend into addiction – a dark road that leads to imprisonment, painful withdrawal symptoms, and violence – which to date has only earned Micky the reputation as a stepping stone in the industry.
What’s interesting about “The Fighter” is that it’s more or less a combination of John G. Avildsen’s “Rocky” and Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull.” Not nearly as dark as the latter, though it borders on it at times, and less self-orientated than “Rocky,” focusing more on themes such as family, “The Fighter” is the perfect blend of satisfying drama and inspirational underdog story which never feels forced or cheesy – a feat to behold. Of course, there is more to the film than swift uppercuts and one-two punches, and most of it stems from a combination of Dicky’s heartbreaking story and the introduction of Charlene Fleming (an absorbed Amy Adams), an outsider who Micky befriends and falls in love with, to Alice’s strict family structure.
Fairly early in the film, Dicky explains the differences between Micky and his boxing technique – a scene that becomes a key point of characterization for both characters. Dicky is a slick fighter, worming around and cunningly throwing in a few slugs, “you have to tire out the other guy,” he explains. Whereas Micky is a tank: he lays down thunderous punches, mainly focusing on breaking his opponent’s protective stances with a hit to the torso followed by a hook right to the kisser – a method that he lives by. But life outside the ring is just as tumultuous as it inside it and both characters tackle their problems the same way. Dicky is fueled by his insecurities which are caused by a major controversy about whether or not his last major opponent actually slipped, contrary to the fact that Dicky was deemed the victor by knock-out. He resorts to the crack pipe, weaseling around the neighborhood, hiding his problems with a smile and the occasional wisecrack. Micky, however, though less charismatic, is strong-willed and independent. He attacks each problem directly and isn’t afraid to break out of the mold that his mother has created.
Alice and Charlene are the other perplexing duo – serving as female counterparts to Dicky and Micky. Alice is insecure in her own right and she exerts her demons by insulting Charlene, usually calling her a “college dropout,” although it is never necessarily explained whether or not Alice had even attended college, however, the “dead-end” nature of their section of Lowell alludes to the fact that she hasn’t. Charlene, on the other hand, is much more independent, in fact, there is no mention of her family; she’s a simple, foul-mouthed young woman. But before we write her up as the next Howard Roark (if you get the reference and post it in the comments section, I’ll respect you forever), Charlene eventually does become more focused on Micky’s dream, however, her overall character represents more of a free bird that mends to his broken wing and who allows him to soar to the top.
But beautifully sculptured characters are just one aspect of proper filmmaking – they have to be performed properly (although the screenplay by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson is excellent). Luckily, “The Fighter” has a plethora of mentionable performances. These include Adams, Leo, Wahlberg, and especially Bale, who must be commended for finally breaking past his stoic demeanor in the “Batman” series, and “Terminator: Salvation.” Saying that Bale will be nominated for this year’s “Best Supporting Actor” award at the Oscars isn’t a far fetch, in fact, it’d be surprising if he didn’t take home the prize; there hasn’t been a supporting performance this year that had just as much emotional range that Bale exemplifies as Dicky.
At first glance, “The Fighter” looks like a shameless cash-in: a cliché tale which conveniently doubles as Oscar bait, but sorting Russell’s latest in the same category would be a farce to good filmmaking. Additionally, the film is the perfect Christmas movie – a story about redemption and family that both men and women can enjoy. Mix in brilliant writing and immaculate performances and you get a film that burns brighter than any Yule log imaginable.