Monday, January 10, 2011

MOVIE REVIEW: The Fighter

THE FIGHTER-- 4 STARS

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When most people probably look at the trailer or the poster for The Fighter, they are likely going to misjudge it.  They're going to see the boxing theme and dismiss it for not standing a chance to be as good as Rocky, Raging Bull, or even The Hurricane or Cinderella Man.  They're going to see Mark Wahlberg and think, as people have most of his career, that he's still "Marky Mark," can't do serious drama, or that they've seen him as the sports underdog before in Disney's Invincible from 2006.  They'll next see the supporting actors of Christian Bale and Amy Adams and think of the obscenity-ranting Bale soundbites, the growling Batman, or, for Adams, the ditzy girl of Enchanted and Catch Me If You Can or the quiet nun of Doubt.  If your opinions are (or were) heading in those directions, you will be pleasantly stunned and impressed by the success of The Fighter.

The new film, The Fighter, from Three Kings director David O. Russell, follows the dramatic real-life story of welterweight "Irish" Micky Ward, played by Wahlberg, and his older half-brother Dicky Eklund (a transformed Christian Bale).  It's the mid-1980's and both brothers hail from Lowell, Massachusetts, where the film came to shoot on some of the actual stomping grounds.  Micky is a straight-laced, hard-working boxer who trains professionally when he's not working with a tool in his hand.  Dicky is the "Pride of Lowell" as a former boxer who actually knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard in a match back in the day.  He's been able to live off that local fame and reputation for years.

Micky is a better boxer in every way than Dicky ever was, but nobody sees that over Dicky's image and spotlight.  There's a movie-within-the-movie going on, in that the two brothers are being filmed by HBO as they train Micky for his next fight.  As everyone is too busy with the camera shine of stardom, what HBO is really there for is documenting Dicky's crack addiction and fall from a successful athletic career.  Everyone suspects that Dicky is on something, but no one around him wants to paint the hero a different color.  Crack has ruled his life and torn apart the body and mind of what he used to be.

Here in Lowell, family comes first.  Against better judgment, Micky allows Dicky and his father George (Jack McGee of TV's Rescue Me in a solid performance) to coach him, while his chain-smoking zero boxing-experience mother, Alice Eklund (Academy Award nominee Melissa Leo from Frozen River) acts as his manager and protector, with her horde of foul-mouthed Massachusetts daughters.  Things change for Micky when he meets and courts the tough, but beautiful bartender Charlene (fellow Academy Award nominee Amy Adams).  Being outside of his family drama, he gravitates to her, especially after his family management leads him into a losing fight he had no chance to win which sets back his fight career.

When Dicky's desperate illegal attempts to get money for crack send him to prison and get Micky in trouble and injured by association, the last straw breaks.  Micky, through Charlene's advice, cuts Dicky and Alice out of his training and life.  Between Dicky's imprisonment, the very public release of the HBO documentary, and Micky's different path, the family is distraught, at odds, and torn apart.  The question becomes who's going to fight their pride and anger to change, forgive, or accept who back.

The Fighter is as much a dramatic and fascinating character piece about family as it is about boxing.  The complicated and very different layers of relationship between parents and children, siblings, and family outsiders drives the film.  Unlike your possible assumptions, Mark Wahlberg can be dramatic, just as you should have already known after seeing Boogie Nights or The Departed.  Between that and his many months of fight training, he encompasses and fills the part in every way.  Much like his old Basketball Diaries co-star, Leonardo DiCaprio, Wahlberg hasn't been the teenaged "Marky Mark" for a long time and people should be taking notice by now after The Fighter of a mature actor coming into his prime.

On the ladies side, Amy Adams raises her game, and her four-letter word vocabulary, to her most mature role to date.  Melissa Leo is unrecognizable from herself as the passive-aggressive manipulating force-of-nature that is Alice.  She's the most complex "evil movie mother" ever, by far.  Both women will be certainly be competing with each other (and True Grit's rookie actress Hailee Steinfeld) for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.  They are both remarkable, but the edge goes to Leo.

However, if Leo wasn't already off the charts, the real showstopping transformation in The Fighter belongs to Christian Bale.  Then again, just like Wahlberg, anyone who has paid attention to his career outside playing the Caped Crusader, knows that Bale is an old-fashioned method actor of chameleon dedication.  As if his dramatic weight loss to play a crack addict wasn't enough to hide the dashing Bruce Wayne, his kinetic mannerisms and spot-on Boston accent will make you forget he's as Welsh as Anthony Hopkins.  Hand him the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award right now.  There's no contest.  Sorry Geoffrey Rush (The King's Speech), Jeremy Renner (The Town), and Andrew Garfield (The Social Network).  All of you don't stand a chance.

Altogether, The Fighter has the best total ensemble cast performance of any film this year, better than the players of Inception, the unique family of The Kids Are All Right, the historical figures of The King's Speech, and the kids of The Social Network.  Top to bottom, from the side-fighters and crack addicts to Micky's seven catty sisters, every performer, trained or untrained, comes together in such a realistic way that you think you were watching that HBO documentary they were filming back then.  While at its core, The Fighter does become a predictable boxing comeback film building to that Hollywood ending, the performances and acting clinic in action are worth your attention and audience.  In putting faith and respect in that, you get your Hollywood ending for free. 

LESSON #1: THE TROUBLE WITH WANTING TO BE THE CENTER OF ATTENTION--  Being the center of attention is euphoric for those who love it and seek it.  However, it's selfish and takes away from those outside of that center around you.  Also, if that spotlight is a negative one,  it can drag those surrounding people, innocent of your reputation and troubles, down with you.

LESSON #2: THE DANGERS OF CRACK ADDICTION--  The film and Christian Bale's portrayal of Dicky doesn't pull any punches in showing the disastrous effects of crack addiction.  It's a terrible drug that has physical and social effects that can tear more than one life apart.  Concurrently, the road to recovery and beating addiction deserves a part of this lesson.

LESSON #3: THE STRUGGLE OF BIG BROTHER VERSUS LITTLE BROTHER-- The family relationship between younger and older siblings, especially brothers, is equally complicated as it is fascinating.  A favorite of this reviewer is Ron Howard's Backdraft, which makes his guy-cry list.  In so many cases, little brother looks up to big brother and considers him his hero, even if big brother isn't a very good example.  Just like fathers and sons, they will be at odds and compete against each other, yet keep a distant and sometimes unspoken sense of pride and admiration.  Deep down, they respect each other and have an unbreakable bond to do anything for each other. 

LESSON #4: BE MINDFUL OF WHO LOOKS OUT FOR YOUR BEST INTERESTS-- The people who look out for your best interests should love and respect you.  They should know the real you, know what's best for you, never put you in a bad situation for selfish means, and stand by you when hardship or mistakes come your way.  Those people commonly should be your family, but sometimes (much like bad example old brother heroes) they aren't the best choice.  Choose who you trust wisely and make the tough choice to stand by them even when they might not match who's supposed to be in that role.