Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Going One-On-One With THE FIGHTER

Might 2010 be the year of Boston-in-film? Between The Social Network, The Town, and now - THE FIGHTER - we've seen a number of Oscar-caliber films set in or near to Beantown. But of all the Boston-based movies in recent years, The Fighter might be the one that most embodies the scrappy spirit of the city. It's an underdog movie, and as we all know, Boston loves its underdogs. The movie takes place in the outlying city of Lowell, but it nails the local flavor with an eye towards the absurd - every thick "pahk the cah" accent, every oddball Masshole character - even the classic rock tunes that provide the movie's soundtrack - all have a ring of both authenticity and affectionate satire. But, more importantly, The Fighter is a pretty unique sort of boxing film. While the rather generic title might lead you to believe that this is just another would-be Rocky, The Fighter comes alive and stands out thanks to an entertaining mix of humor and heart. What's more, it is elevated thanks to a couple of knockout performances. Mark Wahlberg, Amy Adams, and Melissa Leo all shine. But it is Christian Bale who steals the show - the actor turns in yet another dynamite method-acting clinic, that is sure to garner all sorts of acclaim and yes, awards-talk.

The Fighter tells the real-life story of boxer Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg) - a local of Lowell, MA who followed in the footsteps of his older brother, Dick (Christian Bale), a former fighter who in his prime was known as "The Pride of Lowell." Dick's biggest claim to fame was that he once fought Sugar Ray Leonard and knocked him down (though some say that Sugar Ray merely slipped). Now, Dick trains and manages his younger brother - along with their mother, Alice (Melissa Leo) - as Mickey does his best to move up the ranks and have the kind of in-ring career that his brother never could. Mickey is the soft-spoken one in a family of loudmouths. His brother Dick (or Dickey) is a bug-eyed crack-addict who tells anyone in earshot that he's gearing up for a comeback. His mother Alice is a pushy, stubborn, and self-deluding woman (she refuses to openly acknowledge Dickey's drug problems) who has a stranglehold over Mickey's career. On top of that, Mickey has several (!) sisters who are nearly as pushy and obnoxious as their mother.

As you can see, The Fighter is a film that presents all sorts of colorful characters to us, and the result of all these personalities clashing is often very amusing and even funny. Throw Amy Adams into the mix as a tough-cookie bartender who falls into a relationship with Mickey, and you've got a rather combustable mix. In this respect, The Fighter can be a very quirky, funny film. At the same time, there is the more serious side of the film that is tracking Mickey's surprising ascension in the boxing world, as well as Dickey's escalating troubles with drugs and the law. That dual narrative track is a big part of what distinguishes The Fighter - it's not a singular story of one man's rise in the boxing world, but moreso a tale of two brothers - one on the threshhold of achieving something great, the other on a dangerous downward spiral.

Again, the movie's unique tone - that balance of almost cartoonish humor with some genuine, more traditional melodrama - is what makes it stand out from the pack. Director David O. Russell occasionally falls into the trap of mimicking movies like Rocky, of following the traditional sports-movie template, but mostly, he recognizes that he is making a sports movie that is also as much about family and roots as anything else. Like I said, there is tons of local color and detail here, and you get the sense that Mickey and Dickey represent certain aspects of their hometown. Mickey is the great white hope, the fighting spirit. Whereas Dickey is the fallen star, the secret shame, the guy who was once considered great just because he may have gotten in a decent punch or two on the Champ. Dickey was the guy who ultimately let Lowell down, but for him, and for the city, to come out and admit that is perhaps too painful. Case in point: camera crews are following Dickey around for an HBO documentary, and Dickey seems to think it's going to end up as some sort of flattering retrospective. In fact, it's a documentary about the perils of drug-abuse. And why shouldn't Dickey think this? His family treats him like a shining star. The locals love him. In this little corner of the world - in this cold, grey, working-class city - it's easier to think of Dickey as a hometown hero, to admire Mickey for sticking by his family, to hold on to any misguided notion that brings the people pride. Russell does a great job of portraying Lowell as down-on-its-luck, just like Dickey. He uses the mix of the comedic and dramatic to show that family can be so absurd that you have to laugh, but also a very real roadblock towards escape, individuality, and realizing one's dreams.

And by the way, I loved the movie's soundtrack, because to me Boston is the ultimate classic rock town. Watch any Celtics home game and you'll see the only arena in the NBA that blasts more Guns n' Roses, Ozzy, and Led Zepellin than hip hop or pop. Go to any Boston-area bar and, music-wise, it's like the 70's and 80's never ended. Boston is a place where true guitar heroes are revered, and The Fighter seems to recognize this aspect of Beantown. The movie appropriately frames the action with the sounds of The Stones, Aerosmith, AC/DC, and even Whitesnake. It might seem cheesy to some, but it works perfectly in the spirit of the film.

To get back to the acting, though ... again, Christian Bale is ridiculous as Dickey. Wahlberg may get top billing, but this is definitely Bale's movie in a lot of ways. This is one of those crazy, over-the-top performances (approaching Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood levels) that is so "big" as to be funny at times, but also super-impressive and captivating. Because as Dickey, Bale is basically a manic, twitchy, cracked-out force of nature. In terms of looks alone, Bale's transformation from Bruce Wayne to Dickey is pretty startling. Bale looks like an entirely different person than in The Dark Knight or other recent movies - he's gaunt, bony, and balding, and it's almost uncomfortable to watch him onscreen at first. But I guess that's Bale's thing - he commits 110% to these sorts of roles, and I don't know if there's any other actor quite like him working today. He manages to be both sympathetic and scary, and Dickey's arc is ultimately the one that will stick with you from the film. But man, this has to be up there as one of the actor's most memorable performances to date.

That's not to say that Mark Wahlberg doesn't do an excellent job - he does. It's harder to shine when you're playing a soft-spoken fighter in a family of over-the-top personalities, but as Mickey, Wahlberg is more the everyman trying to break on through to the other side. It's a quiet but effective performance. Amy Adams also does a really nice job, playing against type to some extent as Mickey's spark-plug of a girlfriend. Yes, ultimately she is just sort of playing "the girlfriend," but the movie does take pains to make her a well-rounded and entertaining character in her own right. The back-and-forths that Adams has with Melissa Leo are easily some of the movie's highlights, and its great to see them going at it with such great dialogue and zeal. Speaking of Leo, she is great as the Ward-family matriarch.

I really enjoyed The Fighter, but I also think it's a tough movie to get a read on in some ways. As a quirky character drama, it completely works. As a boxing movie though? It does sometimes feel like the big fights are sort of tacked on, and that Russell is a bit unsure of whether to stage them with Rocky-esque flair or to keep them more on the understated side. Particularly during the film's big, climactic showdown, you've kind of been built up to expect the bout to end all bouts, only to get a decent but somewhat abrupt conclusion. Part of that may be that the movie isn't really about the fights - it's not Rocky. Part of that is that this is a true-life story, and it's at least somewhat beholden to reality and actual events. The fact is - Mickey Ward's story is a great character study, but it doesn't seem to naturally lend itself to an iconic story in the grand tradition of other underdog fight films. I also think that the humor in the movie can go a little overboard at times. I got a kick out of Mickey's sisters, for example, but they felt like they were straight out of an SNL sketch. I couldn't help but wonder if some of the cartoonishness ultimately takes away a bit from the effectiveness of the movie's more serious moments.

Still, The Fighter really wowed me in a lot of ways. It caught me offguard, because I was expecting yet another riff on Rocky but got something very different - a funny yet moving character study about families, hometowns, and doggedly pursuing success on your own terms. The movie features one of the year's true standout performances from Christian Bale, and contains a number of individual scenes that are sure to stick with you. With a title like The Fighter, you might be expecting, as I did, a somewhat run-of-the-mill underdog story. Instead, the movie ends up being an unpredictable, quirky surprise.

My Grade: A-

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