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Non-Review Review: The Fighter

The Fighter comes from a long line of Oscar-friendly boxing films. From Rocky through to The Cinderella Man to Raging Bull and beyond, filmmakers seem to see something poetic in the boxer. A figure in the ring, usually from a disadvantaged background, fighting because it’s the only thing that they know what to do. There’s a noble simplicity to the sport, a brutal honest that one seldom finds in football (American or otherwise), basketball or baseball. There’s always something touching about watching a protagonist beat the odds, and boxing films thrive on the literal nature of their conflict. I can’t say that The Fighter adds anything new to the long established “Oscar boxing film”, but it does have one advantage: the sheer volume of talent in its corner.

How does it measure up?

About halfway through the film, we get to see Micky (“with no E”) Ward in action. As we watch him, and study his strategy, it becomes very obvious why this film was made – and why, perhaps, it called out to star Mark Wahlberg to produce. Ward doesn’t go in aggressively. He doesn’t match his opponent pound-for-pound punch-for-bloody-punch. Instead Ward adopts something similar to the strategy that Homer Simpson used during his brief boxing career – he wears his opponent out. He doesn’t tire his adversary with fancy footwork, nor with sharp jabs. Micky takes each and every punch that the other boxer can throw at him.

Watching Ward in the ring, his strategy is that of an Oscar contender. He consciously fights adopting something similar to the structure of the classic “underdog” movie tale. Ward doesn’t just get pounded and beaten in real life through the first two-thirds – his approach to boxing is to let his opponent throw every ounce of strength they have at him, and to endure it. He takes the knocks like he does when they come from life itself. Sure, they leave him bruised and battered and bloody, but – if he can make it to the end – he’ll be given a chance to hit back. It’s a move that not only garners Ward sympathy (as he comes across as a “defensive” rather than “offensive” boxer), but it’s one which mirrors the emotional arc and the suspense of the standard Oscar-friendly drama.

His brother can be a bit of a Dick...

Don’t get me wrong, a lot of movies use the boxing ring as a metaphor for life (“it ain’t about how hard you can hit,” Rocky assures his son in Rocky Balboa, “it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep movin’ forward, how much you can take…and keep movin’ forward!”), but this movie doesn’t use the time in the ring as a metaphor for life – it uses it as a metaphor for the standard three-act structure. It’s beautiful and clever – and all the more wonderful because it actually happened. Ward’s time in the ring demanded a film adaptation, let alone any of the personal drama around him.

In fact, this is where the movie runs into a bit of bother. Micky Ward, as portrayed by Mark Wahlberg, isn’t exactly the most dynamic protagonist in the history of cinema. We’re introduced to him as he is manipulated by his manager mother and his crack-addicted brother and trainer, Dicky. Nevermind that these characters are far more complex and interesting than the relatively straight-laced Micky, or that they are played by the superb Melissa Leo and Christian Bale respectively. These personalities dominate Micky for the first hour, taking advantage of him. We learn that they are poisonous to him, and more fixated on the revenue he assures them than in his own success.

I'll fight The Fighter's corner...

One would assume that the narrative arc of the film would see Micky growing into his own man and making his own decisions. Learning to expel the toxic influences of his family, who – despite having genuinely good intentions – just can’t make his career work. The true drama would develop from Ward making his own choices and decisions, and his own judgements about what is best for him.

This does not happen. Instead, Micky meets a pretty young bargirl named Charlene. She’s educated (been to college, but dropped out) but isn’t uptight about it (doesn’t like having to “read” subtitled movies). She immediately recognises how poisonous Micky’s family are, and how they are continually using him. I’m sure we’re supposed to believe that Charlene empowers him, but what follows is more like a tug of war between the various people with an interest in Micky. Just because Charlene knows next to nothing of boxing, it doesn’t stop her directing Micky from the sidelines. In fact, the one positive decision that Micky makes himself (near the film’s climax) is not that he wants to make his own decisions, but he wants everybody to chip in and run his life for him.

In fairness, it’s almost the only complaint I can level at the film. For the bulk of its runtime, it’s a well directed and acted drama. It’s smart and it’s more than occasionally funny. The fact that Micky seems like a passive lead is perhaps more heavily emphasised by the fact that Mark Wahlberg has surrounded himself with phenomenal actors who steal virtually every scene they are in. Christian Bale loses himself in the role of Dicky Eklund (and is a lock for that Oscar), to the point where it seems the film (and the audience) have more fun with Dicky than with the lead. Melissa Leo is superb as the matriarch of the clan. Amy Adams is as solid as ever as the girlfriend who challenges the family. It’s very fashionable to mock Wahlberg – he’s actually quite decent here – but he is outclassed by his supporting cast.

Mark Wahlberg's real opponents...

That doesn’t mean that it isn’t a fun or entertaining film. It certainly is. It’s more remarkable for the fact that it’s all true. Director David O. Russell does an absolutely stunning job of stripping away the sly hint of glamour which surrounds the film (I wasn’t familiar with the history of the family, so when the true subject of the “comeback documentary” about Dicky Eklund is revealed, it was a powerful moment). Russell is very good at balancing humour and tragedy – much as he did with Three Kings. Any number of scenes, especially those featuring Dicky (for example, his attempts to raise funds for his brother), are on one level hilarious – but on another soul-destroyingly depressing. It’s a tough balance to get right, and both Russell and Bale nail it almost perfectly.

The Fighter is a well-made and engaging film. It covers old ground, but it covers it in an interesting enough way and with enough skill that you can’t help but engage with it. It’s sad, moving, funny and uplifting – often at the same time. Unfortunately, it’s slightly undermined by the fact that Micky is never quite as interesting as what’s going on around him – but, if you can see past that, it’s a great little film.

See what other Irish reviewers had to say about the film at Cine.ie.

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