Drama biopic is too dry so can I just be a kid and say that this is as super-entertaining and whack as any movie I’ve seen this year? The Fighter with Mark Wahlberg as welterweight contender Micky Ward, is Rocky gone to Beantown except with more casual everyday street melées and porch hangouts to give off neighborhood flavor. This has been a five-year plus pet project for Wahlberg, and he is working class solid in it with an ability to bring poetry to an Irish average joe who just happens to pack a mean head-body combo in the ring. Natural talent is no problem for Micky, but he has a high-strung and combative family that gets in the way. Riotously rendered, the combative family streak is a cross somewhere between the old “In Living Color” TV parody families and a hoods on the block Scorsese film.
Vibrancy is evident in every corner of the film in terms of freewheeling camerawork and hyper performance, but Christian Bale (“The Dark Knight,” “The Machinist”) as the trouble bound brother and Melissa Leo (“Frozen River,” “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada”) as the control freak and demented mother are a two-times over tour-de-force combo.Bale has always been a transforming, morphing maniac when it comes to undertaking his roles. But when it comes to playing a crack addict who interminably refuses to admit that he gets in the way of his brother’s dreams, he is not an inhabitant of Dicky Eklund but a possessed aura of a wrecking ball. Dicky once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard in the ring, but now hangs out in crack houses and jumps from windows into garbage piles. He is supposed to be Micky’s trainer but he’s too high and fluky to ever be on-time. For delusions of grandeur, he is a willing participant of a HBO documentary subject (fallen boxer as addict) who doesn’t realize that it is exploitive of his blown-to-pieces life.
Den mother to close to a dozen kids (her girls are collective flame-outs), Leo is a scary and a hysterical hoot at once as Alice Ward. The way she runs the family is like an authority commander over a snake pit, her kids in it. She has for years kept Micky from getting a real manager and a real trainer. When Micky says he is going to drop his brother in favor of a real trainer, Mom is willing to beat him up. And you can’t hit Mom back. Micky has a terrific, real Boston salt courtship with barmaid Charlene played by Amy Adams (“Junebug”), and because Miss MTV barmaid is there, Mom doesn’t have to slug it out with Micky cuz she can slug it out with her. Miss MTV can slug back, too, because this is lower side Boston where chicks fend for themselves. In the end, mom always does it out of love. But in this film the love, however toxic, is a genuine love and you can’t hate Alice for her pitbull commitment to family unity.
The actual pursuit of boxing falls off track for Micky. Missteps or distractions include how his brother’s petty crimes get him in trouble, or how his estranged daughter is pulled away from him, or how he gets pummeled in the ring by an opponent twenty pounds heavier in a pro fight that Mom set up in agreement with ESPN. Micky’s boxing record is nothing to pride himself on, and he’s ready to give it up. But Charlene smacks sense into him: If he gives up his brother then maybe he can concentrate on his training. The pitbull comes charging, alas, it’s never a one-person conflict.
The whole movie is comic-mania screwball fighting within family, escalated to bona fide blows. Director David O. Russell (“Three Kings,” “Flirting with Disaster”), has a talent for inspiring heaps of rowdiness and eccentricity from his actors and keeps things rollicking too with a punchy-gritty soundtrack and fierce-snappy editing. He infuses a freaky and unique quality to the film, by making the family fights more intense than the bout fights as if that were typical nature. The boxing is not in seed with “Raging Bull,” but surely it is brutal, if more toned to realism that is away from typical movie-like boxing. The movie though is a showcase of actor thunder – it’s the street stuff that knocks you out. Strange, as exciting as it is, this is the first boxing movie that’s not foremost a boxing movie. Bale and Leo are likely contenders for best supporting actor and actress (Editor’s Note: Both subsequently won the Oscar). Wahlberg is really just playing a normal dude trying his best not to lock horns with them and remain decent.
114 minutes. Rated R.
DRAMA / SPORTS FABLE / WEEKEND WITH BEER MOVIE
Film Cousins: ”Who’s That Knocking at My Door” (1968); “Mean Streets” (1973); “Rocky” (1976); “Raging Bull” (1980); “The Wrestler” (2008).