Surprisingly, little boxing goes on in The Fighter: A lot of the punches in this fact-based drama about boxer “Irish” Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his half-brother/trainer Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) are thrown outside the ring. Director David O. Russell (I Heart Huckabees, Three Kings), displaying a deft touch for straightforward storytelling, has made an insanely rousing drama about a raucous family that just happens to unfold against a sports backdrop. The title obvious refers to Micky, but it could just as easily apply to Dicky: Both wage major fights — of very different natures — over the course of the film.
As The Fighter opens in the 1990s, Micky, who is managed by his mother Alice (Melissa Leo), is eager to stop being a “stepping stone” – a guy other fighters use to move up in the ranks. Micky has a decent but unremarkable record, and he believes he deserves a shot at the light welterweight title. But Dicky, who’s hooked on crack, is too unreliable a trainer for Micky to advance.
An HBO documentary crew is shadowing Dicky for what he tells everyone is the story of his comeback, although they are actually shooting a film about addiction (1995’s High on Crack Street). Before his drug woes, Dicky became “The Pride of Lowell” for knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard during a 1978 bout and lasting 10 rounds against the champion. But his career fizzled after that, and crack wiped out any remaining hope.
Still, Micky idolizes his older brother and keeps training with him despite the advice of outsiders: Dicky understands his strengths and talent better than anyone. The Fighter is, among other things, about the strength of family ties and how far they can be stretched without breaking. Even after Dicky gets arrested (for the 28th time) and is sent to prison, Micky refuses to give up on him entirely. He places his career in the hands of other, more connected management, but still visits his brother before an upcoming fight.
The Fighter may sound like just another formulaic boxing picture. But, even though it follows the genre’s traditional structure right down to the climactic high-stakes bout, the movie has an electric, captivating power that has nothing to do with Rocky clichés. The picture’s secret weapon is Bale: His great, livewire performance as the barely functioning drug addict who always has a makeshift remedy for every problem is the source of the film’s energy. He’s constantly on the move, jiving and conniving about his drug habit while doing what he believes is best for Micky. Something eventually has to give, though, the way it always does with addiction. And Bale makes you understand why Dicky’s family doesn’t turn their backs on him long after he deserves it.
Leo is equally good as Micky’s mother, a tough-talking, chain-smoking broad who manages her son’s career with a maternal ferocity. Sporting a blond mountain of hair and a decisive demeanor, Alice is often reminiscent of Carmela Soprano – another screen mom who only steps in when she deems it necessary, but then becomes a force of nature.
Compared to them, Wahlberg is calmer and more muted – he’s the anchor around which the family revolves – but he conveys Micky’s inner strength in subtle ways, such as his relationship with a waitress (an excellent Amy Adams, giving as good as she gets) his relatives detest. Russell films the boxing matches on video, recreating the look and feel of an HBO broadcast, and with only a couple of brief exceptions, doesn’t try to go all Raging Bull and stylize the bouts.
Such flourishes would seem out of place in this tough yet tender picture, which makes you care about these people and root for their success – to stay together and not splinter apart. Even if you know the eventual fate of Ward’s career, The Fighter is still tremendously involving and entertaining – a show-stopping crowd pleaser. If you’re not thrumming with excitement when Micky steps into the ring for the film’s big showdown, you may want to check yourself for a pulse – or a heart.
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, Jack McGee
Director: David O. Russell
Screenwriters: Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson
Producers: Dorothy Aufiero, Ryan Kavanaugh, Mark Wahlberg, Todd Lieberman
A Paramount Pictures release. Running time: 115 minutes. Vulgar language, drug use, sexual situations, adult themes. Opens Dec. 17 at area theaters.