Although there are good things I like, there is something unbalanced in “The Fighter” bothers me, and that is why I am not so sure about whether I like it or not. It is definitely a well-made drama with the good performances, but, as an underdog sports drama, it strangely does not put much weight on its title character, who should have been the center that holds all these good things in the movie. In fact, he is the weakest and the least interesting factor in the story. He says to the others surrounding later in the story, “I’m the one who’s fighting. Not you, not you, and not you.” Sure, he fights in the ring, but does he fight in his story? Well, it is hard for me to answer that.
The movie is based on the real-life story of Micky Ward(Mark Wahlberg), a welterweight boxing champion from Lowell, Massachusetts, and his people, including his half-brother Dicky Eklund(Christian Bale). Dicky was also a professional boxer, but, after his match with Sugar Ray Leonard, his career went down, and he becomes a crack addict who still thinks he is the pride of Lowell. He frequently brags about how he knocked down Sugar Lay in that match, but you cannot easily believe what a crack addict says about himself.
The movie has a vibrant, interesting opening with these two brothers accompanied by the crews from HBO, who come to Lowell for making a documentary. Dicky is very enthusiastic about this. He believes the documentary is about his imminent comeback to professional boxing, and he rambunctiously goes around his town and his people with the crews following him behind. Though it is later pointed out in front him that the documentary is about crack addition, he still believes it will make him famous. Indeed, there was an HBO documentary “High on the Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell” made at that time, and the director David O. Russell adds some authenticity to his movie by casting Richard Farrell as a camera man, who actually made that documentary at that time.
Micky has a talented boxer, but he has never gotten a good chance. His family support him, but they are the ones who have hampered his career. Dicky is a constant troublemaker. Although it can be said that he is a good trainer who knows well about how his brother should fight in the ring, like many addicts to their families, he keeps disappointing Micky as well as his family. Usually high on the crack, he is late for his brother’s training. He does not show up when everybody else is ready for going to the match important for Micky.
Their mother Alice(Melissa Leo) is not much helpful as Micky’s manager, either. While she is a good proof that sometimes mothers do not love their children equally, she is also a lousy manager that pushes her son into the disadvantageous matches, such as the one in which he has to fight with a boxer far heavier than him. However, the things begin to change after Micky meets a young bartender girl Charlene(Amy Adams), who pushes to him into the other direction away from his family, especially after the incident that could ruin his career completely.
As a result, Micky’s career ascends, but there is the conflict between his family and Charlene, with Micky in the middle of tumult. He wants everybody get along with each other, but what does he really do in this situation? Although Mark Wahlberg gives a decent performance, but his character is still more or less than the object in this dramatic conflict, not the participant. He is so humble and passive as an underdog that he usually hesitates to say about his thoughts and opinions to his people, while others have lots of things to say about him and themselves He prefers to stay behind these noisy people and, by them, the show is almost stolen from him in the story. In one scene, when he belatedly arrives on the scene, the conflict between other characters is already resolved for him, and he has little thing to do or say.
He does fight in the several boxing match scenes, but how David O. Russell presents them on the screen is curiously conventional, and it is also little out of focus. Some critics compared this movie to Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull”, but, in my view, there is nothing in “The Fighter” equal to the savage power in that great movie. No, I do not mean that they are made in a lousy way – they are good, but they are just as much as we can get from TV during the 1990s. Interestingly, the movie announces these scenes to us through the subtitle even before they gets started, as if they were merely the obligatory chapters in the story – and they actually are.
Despite this odd approach to its central subject, the movie is energetic when it is about the lives outside the ring, and I think it ultimately far more cares about them rather than its hero. They are dim, selfish, and sometimes mean, but they are interesting flawed human beings, who come to senses when they realize it is necessary to do that. The supporting ensemble brings considerable vividness to their roles; they certainly deserve the awards they have received.
With Wahlberg as their ring in which they fight with each other, Bale, Leo, and Adams give the stellar performances that overshadow Wahlberg’s neutral performance from time to time. Considering many extreme roles in his career, the fact that Bale lost his weight for this movie is not so surprising news to us now, but Bale has been always fabulous with his fierce dedication. The more I think about his electrifying Oscar-winning performance, the more I am convinced that the movie could have been more interesting if it had focused on his character instead of his decent but relatively boring brother. Maybe we can make another interesting movie about Dicky Eklund, who overcame his obstacle, remains as a town legend in the end, and recently has the honor to see Bale getting lots of awards including an Oscar. Isn’t that more dramatic than the movie?
Leo and Adams also got the Oscar nominations for their equally good performances. Adams is cast against the type, and she shows the different side of her talent as a tough girl who will not step back from the domineering force of Alice and Alice’s seven daughters. Leo won an Oscar for her brash turn as the selfish mother who hates not being near her son’s success more than anything in the world. There is a touching scene between Alice and Dicky in the car where they are conscious of their problems as well as their bond, and Leo and Bale deftly shows the human side of their mostly unlikable characters. By the way, in case of that suffocating presence of Alice’s seven loser sisters, they uncannily took me back to my childhood surrounded by the female cousins from the mother’s side. My mom was a queen, and they were her ladies-in-waiting, and no one could stop them. At least, they were not losers like Micky’s sisters; most of them were hard working moms with their own careers and lots of hearts.
James Berardinelli, one of the leading web movie critics I have respected, once said that deciding between 2.5 stars and 3 stars was difficult for him, and I also have the same difficulty with this movie. It is certainly not a bad movie, and I enjoyed some parts of it, but I still have my own reservation. The dynamic generated by good supporting performances compensates its weakness a lot, but the conflict between them is resolved in a rather unsatisfying way, although they say it is not so different from the real-life story. And it is still deficient in the center despite the energy from the fringes. Maybe, I could give it 3 stars if the movie were titled “The Fighters” instead.