DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
The fading junior welterweight boxer Micky Ward was working on a road paving crew in the early '90s when he decided to give the ring one more try. And that's the story director David O. Russell tells in the new film "The Fighter." Ward is played by Mark Wahlberg. The cast includes Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo.
Critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: "The Fighter" is a mess, which I mean as a term of endearment. It begins in a pseudo-documentary style, with familiar actors pretending to be working-class people in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1993 - and God, do they hit those R's hard. For a while, it's too disjointed. You can't tell what's at stake. But that messiness has an upside. It gives the characters room and the movie texture, so when it does get you, you're good and got.
"The Fighter" is based, very closely, on the real lives of two half-brothers, both of whom had boxing careers. Mark Wahlberg is Micky Ward, whose career when the movie begins is still in flux. Christian Bale is Dickie Eklund, once the quote, "pride of Lowell," and now the subject - within the film - of an HBO whatever-happened-to documentary that Dickie thinks heralds a comeback.
Fat chance - or rather, alarming skinny chance, since Dickie is addicted to crack and possibly other things, and Bale is doing one of those what-a-committed-actor transformations and looks like he's dying of malnutrition. Dickie's claim to fame is that he once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard in the ring, although it's a better than 50/50 chance Sugar Ray tripped over his own feet. Dickie's sensitive about that, and many other things.
Everybody in "The Fighter" is sensitive, actually. Director David O. Russell loves the pugnacity, the bumptiousness, the random hurled punch or insult: you junk-bag, you skank. Micky and Dickie's mom Alice is played by that marvelous scenery-chewer Melissa Leo with bleached-blond hair and lots of cheap jewelry, and she has a posse of big-haired daughters, like some kind of four-letter-word hurling Greek chorus. Although Micky trains with his half-brother Dickie, there isn't much of a storyline until Micky meets a bartender named Charlene, played by Amy Adams.
Adams, like Bale, has transformed: She gained a little weight, not much, but enough to give her a cute little tum and make her arms look they're used to carrying multiple pitchers of lager. And with her mouthy affect and big swarm of red hair, it doesn't take much to get her Irish up. It's already flying high. "The Fighter" really takes off when Charlene goes up against Mama Alice and the armada of sisters over who will oversee Micky's training: Charlene or Dickie.
(Soundbite of movie, "The Fighter")
Mr. CHRISTIAN BALE (Actor): (as Dickie) Mick, what's the problem?
Mr. MARK WAHLBERG (Actor): (as Micky) The problems...
Ms. MELISSA LEO (Actor) (as Alice) What problem?
Mr. BALE: (as Dickie) What's wrong?
Mr. WAHLBERG: (as Micky) The problems are...
Ms. LEO (as Alice) Like what?
Mr. BALE: (as Dickie) What problem?
Ms. AMY ADAMS (Actor): (as Charlene) Like maybe you not showing up on time to train. Like maybe him having to come find you in a crack house when you're supposed to be at the airport.
Ms. LEO (as Alice) I'm sorry. I don't know who you are. Why you're talking?
Ms. ADAMS: (as Charlene) I'm Charlene. We just met.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. ADAMS: (as Charlene) We're together. Do we need to do this again? Hi, I'm Charlene.
Unidentified Woman: Hi, I'm Charlene.
(Soundbite of crowd chatter)
Mr. WAHLBERG: (as Micky) Hey, we're together.
Ms. LEO (as Alice) What are you going to do, Mick? Listen to some MTV girl who works in a bar? What does she know about boxing?
Ms. ADAMS: (as Charlene) I know we're going to Vegas and getting paid to train, year around. Sounds a hell of a lot better than what you've got him doing here.
Ms. LEO (as Alice) You going to let her talk like that to your mother?
Ms. ADAMS: (as Charlene) Come on, Micky.
Mr. WAHLBERG: (as Micky) I told you, we're together. This is my girlfriend. I want her here.
Ms. LEO (as Alice) I have done everything - everything I could for you, Micky. This MTV girl comes along.
Ms. ADAMS: (as Charlene) Stop calling me an MTV girl, whatever that means. (unintelligible)
EDELSTEIN: That's such a wonderful scene, because when Amy Adams locks eyes with Melissa Leo, they're competing for Micky and for Best Supporting Actress and they're loving it. They're two amazing actresses in clover.
And Wahlberg and Bale get a mano-a-mano thing going, too. Micky visits Dickie in prison to deliver the news that Dickie is no longer his trainer, that it's a guy named Mickey O'Keefe, who's played by Ward's actual trainer Mickey O'Keefe. The brothers lean in toward each, and it's very intense and hard to understand, until the inevitable eruption.
Mr. WAHLBERG: (as Micky) I know you know what I'm doing. Charles and everybody else told you. I just wanted to tell you to to your face myself. I've got new management. Mickey O'Keefe's my trainer now. It's all good.
Mr. BALE: (as Dickie) Yeah. They got you fighting Alfonso Sanchez.
Mr. WAHLBERG: (as Micky) On HBO
Mr. BALE: (as Dickie) And you're promoting that.
Mr. WAHLBERG: (as Micky) Yeah.
Mr. BALE: (as Dickie) What's your plan? How are you going to fight Sanchez?
Mr. WAHLBERG: (as Micky) I ain't going to talk about that.
Mr. BALE: (as Dickie) What's your plan? What's your plan?
Mr. WAHLBERG: (as Micky) I am not here to talk about what...
Mr. BALE: (as Dickie) Yes, you are.
Mr. WAHLBERG: (as Micky) You watch the fight, and you'll see the plan.
Mr. BALE: (as Dickie) Hey, Mick, what is it? You scared? You're embarrassed because you don't even have a plan? I'm your brother. Just tell me.
Mr. WAHLBERG: (as Micky) (unintelligible)
Mr. BALE: (as Dickie) You're going to go in against this guy, let him punch himself out, take him to the body, right? Get inside, switch stances, like you're going work his right, hit him on the left.
Mr. WAHLBERG: (as Micky) You ain't me. All right. You can't be me.
Mr. BALE: (as Dickie) Be careful.
Mr. WAHLBERG: (as Micky) You had a hard enough time being you when you had your chance, and that's why you're in here. All right. I'll fight Sanchez the way I fight.
EDELSTEIN: The fighting, when it comes, is brutal. The real Micky Ward was known for taking loads of punishment, for being regularly pulped. Director Russell doesn't stylize the bouts. He doesn't go for "Raging Bull" slo-mo, sadomasochistic poetry. You're just as aware of the people outside the ring screaming at Micky as Micky himself. He seems to feed on all that family drama, to need it the way Popeye needed spinach.
For all those over-the-top accents and Oscar-bait performances, something about "The Fighter" seems ultra-real. You're meeting not a lone, raging bull, but an entire raging ecosystem. It could have been called, "The Fighters."
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.
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