"The Fighter"

If there is any recreational medium that I love more than the cinema, it is sports. The vast majority of my spare time that does not involve movies usually revolves around the ESPN family of networks. I watch sports, play sports, think about sports, and work in sports. So it should come as no surprise that I love it when movies and sports come together to rock the multiplex. 2010 was a huge disappointment in this regard. I can’t remember a year that featured less sports related films than 2010 and that’s coming off a year that had a solid selection in this department. It seems weird that I went into “The Fighter,” the last movie I saw in 2010, knowing that by default it would be the best sports movie of the year. Fortunately for me, “Fighter” lived up to the title that had been pre-ordained upon it, delivering a compelling story that grabs hold of the audience from the opening scene.

“Fighter” is the true life tale of Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a struggling light welterweight boxer who fought in the 90s. Boxing is a family affair for Ward, with his mother Alice (Melissa Leo) serving as his manager and his half-brother Dick Eklund (Christian Bale) fulfilling the role of trainer. Dick was at one time an up-and-coming fighter who nearly defeated the great Sugar Ray Leonard in a highly publicized bout in the late 70s. Since then, however, his life has fallen apart in the midst of a serious drug addiction. Everyone has a say in Micky’s career except Micky, leading to a litany of poorly matched opponents who use him as a tune-up before a big fight. Everything comes to a head when Dick, attempting to make some money to keep Micky in his gym, gets into an altercation with the police during which Micky’s hand is broken. With his brother back in jail and his hand busted up, Micky finds that his career is at a crossroads. Under the guidance of his new girlfriend, Charlene (Amy Adams), Micky decides to give it a go on his own, training for the first time without Dick. When Dick is released from prison, however, Micky finds that he must figure out how to bridge his two worlds in order to give himself a legitimate chance in a title fight.

Despite its sports setting, “The Fighter” is, for all intents and purposes, a character study. It’s kind of the exact opposite of a Jerry Bruckheimer production: 90 percent story and development, 10 percent action. At times that causes the film to move a bit slower than I was prepared for, resulting in a 115 minute runtime that feels a bit more like 150 minutes. It isn’t boring by any means but the pace is steady and deliberate. As such, much is asked of and delivered by the leads. You could not ask for better crafted or portrayed characters than Micky, Dick, Alice, and Charlene and therefore, Wahlberg, Bale, Leo, and Adams. All four of these esteemed actors give masterful performances that should be counted among their finest works. Wahlberg brings quiet intensity to Micky, a trait that makes his immediately likeable. You can’t help but root for Micky because that feeling comes upon you organically rather than being forced down your throat. Alice, on the other hand, is cold and harsh and Leo perfectly illustrates the balance between loving mother and icy businesswoman. On some level, you dislike Alice the way you do those obsessive stage moms who force their kids into pageants but you’re also left to wonder what you might do in her shoes. If Wahlberg provides the quiet drive behind the film, Adams gives it its voice and backbone. Charlene is unapologetically foul-mouthed and strong willed and it is her push that allows Micky to do something for himself. Micky’s life outside of the ring is as much a fight as it is inside of it and that is displayed beautifully in the conflict between Charlene and the rest of the family.

All of these performances, however, pale in comparison to the work done by Bale. Every time he stepped on screen I was fixated on him. I sat mesmerized as he ran the gamut of emotions that rule an addict’s life, the ups and the downs, the delusions of quitting and the calm of the high. His mannerisms, speech, and behaviors are all textbook junkie, giving heartbreakingly authentic life to Dick Eklund and the film as a whole. The scene in which Dick realizes what he’s done to his family and particularly his young son is one of the more haunting, gut-punching moments in recent film history. Simply put, Bale owns every scene that he’s in and you are undeniably reminded of what outstanding work this guy is truly capable of.

On the down side, I found some of the filmmaking aspects of “The Fighter” to be below par. The sound and video editing were a bit off and at times even the color was tinted poorly. While the boxing scenes were excellent (you can tell that extensive work was put in to make these shots look as realistic as possible), I felt like they could have used a little more production to help build the in-ring drama to match what happens outside of it. The final fight ends somewhat anticlimactically which brought with it a touch of disappointment. On some level, I think the performances are better than “The Fighter” itself and overshadow the film as a whole.

These negatives, however, in no way take away from the overall impact of this movie. Director David O. Russell put together a brilliant film and brought attention to a story that badly needed telling. The realism of “The Fighter” combined with the powerful performances would make it a tough contender to beat for just about any other sports movie. It is an outstanding achievement and one that will not be forgotten soon.

Grade: A-

Boxing may be favorite sport in the movies,