The less you know about “Irish” Micky Ward before watching The Fighter, the better. The power of David O’Russell’s boxing drama may be most deeply felt on those viewers discovering Micky’s story here for the first time. Those already familiar with the underdog particulars of Micky’s career trajectory will still enjoy the film’s performances and the genuinely riveting boxing sequences, but may not be so transfixed by the script’s largely conventional story arc. Scripted by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson, The Fighter follows Micky’s rocky road from a small-time Massachusetts boxer to an international big deal, navigating the push-pull dynamics of a cantankerous family strong on loyalty but weak on emotional stability.
The Fighter is really about two fighters, Micky (Wahlberg) and his older brother, Dicky (Christian Bale). The latter is a has-been boxer who once made it to a title bout with Sugar Ray Leonard. Now, though, Dicky is a part-time trainer to Micky and a full-time crackhead, too strung-out to show up on time to his brother’s training sessions and his trips to boxing matches. Micky has ambition and talent, but he’s trapped by his loyalty to his dysfunctional family, by the guilt that his mother (and manager) Alice (Melissa Leo) uses to keep him under her thumb. But eventually the Ward clan’s constant drama of crime and drugs threaten to derail to Micky’s dreams, and, after the crack-addled Dicky is hauled back into prison, he uses the opportunity to strike out on his own.
Micky’s resolve and self-confidence finds its spark in Charlene (Amy Adams), his tough-chick girlfriend. Charlene shields Micky from Alice and Dicky’s toxic influence, and, under her and Micky’s new trainer O’Keefe’s wing, he finally makes a name for himself in the boxing circuit. But there’s a parallel story of redemption going on, that of Dicky himself. After watching a TV documentary made about his own shameful train-wreck of a life, Dicky decides to clean up his act. It’s stirring to see the crosscut footage of Micky revitalizing his career in the ring while Dicky revitalizes his mind and body in the confines of prison; both men are finally breaking the shackles of their hard-luck fate.
Despite the story’s connect-the-dots, sport-as-redemption storyline, Wahlberg, Bale and O’Russell breathe galvanic life into tired material. Somehow, they make each and every boxing sequence a tense, nail-biting experience because so much is at stake for these brothers, from self-respect to their livelihoods and their very destinies. The elemental mechanics of the redemption story, the metaphor about the transformative potential of one’s passion and, as corny as it sounds, of the love between brothers, between Micky and Charlene and, ultimately, among family members are all put through their paces rigorously here.
O’Russell serves the story’s dramatic and emotional beats capably. He doesn’t impose sarcasm or irony here — ordinarily one of the trademarks of his brand of storytelling (put to excellent and appropriate effect in his previous outings) — but allows Micky, Charlene, Dicky and the Ward clan’s interrelationships, fraught with antagonisms, to evolve naturally, so that the characters’ fruits feel earned in the course of The Fighter. Where the film stumbles, though, is in its broad representations of, frankly put, Massachusetts “white trash”: Melissa Leo turns in a flinty performance but her Alice, with her bouffant hair-do, tacky get-ups and chain-smoking come across as borderline parody; Alice could just as easily be at home in an SNL spoof of the film. The same goes for the representations of Alice’s gaggle of daughters, all stringy-haired and half-literate. These characters fail to find much dramatic traction because their cultural tics are laid on so thick.
Bale almost falls overboard into parody himself with his spastic, wild-eyed portrayal of the gaunt, crack-addict Dicky, but the performance is so consistently off-kilter and gutsy that it’s tough not to admire it. Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that, for half this film, the character Bale portrays is constantly, frighteningly high, and his performance, therefore — for all its self-conscious nuttiness — finds its justification. Keeping The Fighter confidently on its feet is Wahlberg whose steady, soulful performance gives the film its urgent moral center. Wahlberg ensures we stay rooted in Micky’s journey, for all the script and fellow performers’ broad strokes, cliches and conventionalities, and that we root for the scrapper through every round in the ring.
Directed by: David O’Russell
Written by: Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, Mickey O’Keefe, Jack McGee