Rating:

Marky Mark and the Punchy Bunch

Main Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Melissa Leo, Amy Adams

Director: David O. Russell

Honestly, I don’t have a lot of use for boxing.  The whole giving and taking of a bloody beating for the entertainment of others strikes me as fairly foul.  On the other hand, Academy Award winning performances and a half-naked Mark Wahlberg, those I can use.  Put it all together and there are more reasons than not for me to see The Fighter.

The Fighter is the story of Micky Ward and his crazy family.  Micky (Mark Wahlberg, who also produced) is a boxer, living in Lowell, Massachusetts and pretty much just scraping by doing roadwork in between losing fights.  His brother, Dickey Ecklund (Christian Bale), is his trainer and his mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), is his manager.  To be blunt, they both suck.  Dickey is a skeevy meth addict with delusions of past and future grandeur and Alice can’t seem to get over her obsession with Dickey long enough to see that he does more harm than good or to actually be a decent manager or parent to her other son.  There’s a giant passel of daughters in there, too, generally being trashy and stupid and making Micky’s life miserable.  The film follows Micky as he shoots for a last chance at a big break and tries to wiggle from under the destructive thumb of his family with the help of new girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams).

There are two outstanding performances in The Fighter – from Melissa Leo and Christian Bale.  Both won Oscars and both put together interesting, complex and tragicomic characters.  But…they were overdone, tipping into caricature.  Strong negative characters need to be used with care lest they wear out their welcome, which is what happens here.  Bale and Leo perform incredibly and create mesmerizing characters, they simply have too much screen time.

Wahlberg and Adams are less intense, making them pale a bit in comparison to their flashy cast-mates.  But they both fare well.  Adams especially, playing against her perky typecast, puts together a complicated character not as different from the women she opposes than she might like to believe.  Charlene is controlling in her own way, making Micky seem more than a little weak-willed.  Adams seems comfortable in this darker role; hopefully she’ll get more chances to show off her considerable dramatic skills.

Wahlberg doesn’t really stand a chance against his cast-mates as far as acting talent.  He’s destined to be overshadowed by the powerhouses of Leo and Bale.  But even that works out well.  The character of Micky isn’t strong; he buckles time and again to the more charismatic figures in his life, making it okay for Wahlberg to melt into the background while the others chew the scenery.  His perpetual look of unconscious simmering resentment isn’t perfect, but it’s serviceable.  Wahlberg played a large role in getting the film made (serving as producer as well as lead) and his dedication to telling the story shows in his performance.  His performance is a grade above his usual, showing a slightly greater emotional range along with his trademark muscled torso (which is shown off for a reason – it’s fabulous).

The gritty setting of the boxing world, Dickey’s drug house and delusional, downward spiraling mania and the ugly urban streets of Lowell all combine for an effective if unattractive palate against which the story plays.  This place is hard to like.  These people are hard to like.  In fact, I don’t like any of them – up to and including the spineless Micky.  The setting doesn’t help, but I appreciate it for its realism and how it shapes both the story and the characters.

The Fighter is a difficult movie to “like”.  There are precious few moments that really make me root for anyone.  The choreography of the boxing scenes is fascinating, even for a non-boxing fan like me, but the emotional core of the story is ugly.   It’s more the kind of movie I appreciate for its good performances and admirable attempt to tell a difficult story.  Director David O. Russell does a good job with the material, but I’m not convinced the material warrants a movie at all.  In the end I’m sitting right in the middle.  I don’t love it.  I don’t hate it.  3 stars for the admirable execution of a not terribly interesting story of unlikable people in an ugly place and an ugly profession.