Friday, December 10, 2010

The Fighter (2010)

 Directed by cinematic wild card David O. Russell, The Fighter is a bristling family drama with a sneaky battle strategy – it lulls you in with the promise of underdog sports heroics, chides you into dropping your guard with surprising comedic geniality, then lands a powerhouse punch on your movie-loving soft spot, that solar plexus of cinematic adoration occupied by childhood favorites, modern classics, and repeat viewings

The Fighter isn’t just a good movie – it’s a complete success. Smartly acted, intriguingly told and resoundingly familiar to anybody who grew up in the New England area, Russell’s film is subtle but impactful, warm but daring. In boxer “Irish” Mickey Ward the movie offers us a quiet hero to root for, a humble strength anchoring a whirlwind of talking heads and cold hard truths, both so readily available in our world, juxtaposed with something that is not.

In its heart, The Fighter is fighting for all of us, battling for our sanity, for a chance to remind us how oddly amazing life is, and of what can be accomplished while living it, never ignoring what needs to be overcome in order to reach those goals.

But now I’ve turned an underdog into an expected champ. So let’s back up and start at the beginning.

This is the story of Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a boxer from Lowell, Massachusetts living in the shadow of his older brother Dicky (Christian Bale), the town’s pride and joy, and a man who was ultimately consumed by that same shadow. Dicky’s now a junkie, a grown adolescent out of touch with reality. He’s washed up, but he’s still training his brother for the fights, still a lynchpin in the boxing business his large, female-dominant family depends on.

Of course the one actually fighting those fights is Mickey, and he’s taking a beating, in the ring and in life. That is until he meets Charlene (Amy Adams), the no-gruff bartender who teaches him to fight for himself (and for her, while he’s at it).

The set-up is traditional, with all the pieces in place for movie magic. The story is that of learning to be a winner, to match in life what you have in your heart. But Russell and co. never let the film get as cheesy as that sounds. The script from Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson offers a biting whit and a grounded sensibility that keeps us from soaring into the cinematic dreamscape. These aren’t characters – they’re people, and the story treats them as such. Their journey feels genuine.

There are actors playing these characters that are people, and they do a damn good job. This is the third collaboration between Russell and Wahlberg (see 1999’s Three Kings, 2004’s I Heart Huckabees), and as usual he brings out the best in his star. Wahlberg’s Ward is a stoic warrior, the talk low/live honest type. Duly, the strengths in Wahlberg’s performance are in the subtleties.

On the other end of that spectrum is Bale’s Dicky, a naïve louse Bale plays like a downed power line, dancing wildly dangerously. The actor dropped several belt sizes to weigh in as a junkie, a broken man who doesn’t know he’s broken. This performance is one of the year’s finest, and arguably the best of his career.

But this isn’t a boys club. Melissa Leo plays the family matriarch, entitled and manipulative. And Adams mixes it up with the best of them, layering Charlene with a battle-toned armor, and a deceptively fragile soul.

Of course, this IS a boxing movie, and the fights are smartly done. Russell handles the violence well, and knows how to build the moment like a pro. Sports fans will not be disappointed.

But they may be surprised. I don’t know what I was expecting going in, but I wasn’t expecting such a rich family drama with such honest humor. The Fighter is a must see movie. It lacks the majestic splendor typical of Academy favorites, but it’s a fitting pick for this year’s dark horse.

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