It’s rare for a film to be set in the context and scenery of economic and social depression and yet not make that its ‘issue’ de jour, yet that’s exactly what The Fighter does as we are transported to turn-of-the-millennium Lowell. Sure, the issues of crack cocaine, absent parenting and, more dangerously, over parenting, raise their ugly heads, but this is a film primarily about the benefits of family and not giving up. This means that, excellent though the performances, direction and writing are, this always feels like a simple, feel good story, rather than a particularly brave feature film.
Mark Wahlberg plays the central character of ‘Irish’ Micky Ward who took on the boxing establishment after years of being used as a ‘stepping stone’ for more talented fighters. This is the crux of the film: downtrodden, demeaned and on the verge of quitting, our hero learns how to hit back. His counterpunch is aided by his new girlfriend played by Amy Adams. It’s a fairly simple role and whilst well executed is unlikely to trouble the Academy voters too much. All the same she’s consolidating a decent portfolio of work, especially after her Oscar nomination for Doubt. The more Oscar-baiting performances are by Christian Bale and Melissa Leo. After years of playing stoic characters (From Empire of the Sun right through to the Batman series) Bale gets a chance to break free as the twisty nutjob (or as he puts it, ‘squirrelly’) Dicky Eklund. He’s almost certain to get an Oscar for this performance and whilst detractors will call it unnecessarily showy, it’s a finely balanced portrait of the films anti-hero. Leo’s task is perhaps more complex, but equally successful, as she manages to, somehow, bring humanity to the role of a woman slowly crushing the spirit out of her son. After Frozen River was largely over looked, this could well be her year.
In truth the movie isn’t quite the sum of its parts. Three acting nominations (Wahlberg might consider himself unlucky to have missed out) goes to show that the cast are a force to be reckoned with, but overall the movie is more Rocky than Raging Bull. The boxing scenes are superbly shot (O.Russell elected to use the original cameras to give the film its edgy ‘Fight Night’ feel) but the technical craftsmanship is somewhat diminished by the simplicity of story. All the same it’s a genuine feel good film and the triumphant ending will have the hardest cinema viewers whooping in the aisles (perhaps not literally). This is one of the strongest sports films in recent years and deserves its place in the pantheon of excellent films inspired by the world’s most cinematically endearing sport.
A very finely acted movie that gears up to a big finale before delivering its triumphant sucker punch. As tenaciously likeable as its hero.