Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.
Like “Rocky,” it’s about an underdog fighter. Like “Raging Bull,” it’s about dysfunctional brothers one of whom is a fighter. And like “Mystic River,” “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Departed,” “The Town,” and “Shutter Island,” it’s about the sound of those colorful pahk-the-cah accents that indicate Boston or somewhere near it.
“The Fighter (2010), set in Lowell, Massachusetts, finds its real-life title character, who has gone on hiatus from boxing after an embarrassing string of defeats, trying to climb back in the ring.
Mark Wahlberg is “Irish” Micky Ward, a promising welterweight boxer being trained by his older half-brother, the manic, unreliable Dicky Eklund, played by Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Christian Bale, an ex-boxer who back in the day — when he got in the ring with Sugar Ray Leonard and, the legend goes, actually knocked him down, even though he lost the fight — was Micky’s childhood hero.
But that was a long time ago, when Dicky was promising as well. Now he’s retired from the ring, is in his brother’s corner, but is as undependable as can be. Oh, he believes in his younger sibling, but the crack he’s addicted to and the crime he turns to to indulge his needs doesn’t help him to act like it.
Micky and Dicky’s domineering and ferociously possessive mom, the mother of seven daughters and two sons, played by Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Melissa Leo, also loves Micky to death and roots for him around the clock. Manages him too. Well, make that mismanages. Mostly, she puts the mother in smother, keeping everyone who could possibly do Micky any real good, who could advance his career in any meaningful way, away from him.
So it’s not out of character for her — or her seven fully-grown daughters, who seem to do nothing but sit around the house like Disney’s Seven Dwarfs awaiting Snow White’s arrival, or pour into and out of the car on a local errand like a circus clown act — to take an instant dislike to the fetching local bartender, a tough, foul-mouthed college dropout played by Amy Adams. Soon after she and Micky start dating, she, fighting for her man, advises him to snip those apron strings, resist the visceral tug of brotherly and sisterly love, and turn elsewhere for “help.”
Why? Because the way she sees it, Micky’s taking a lot of punches in and out of the ring. And with a trainer and manager like Micky’s got, who needs enemies?
“The Fighter” is certainly a boxing thriller that builds to an in-the-ring climax and engages our natural rooting interest. But it spends even more time as a punchy psychodrama about a black-and-blue blue-collar family.
Director David O. Russell works from a measured screenplay that uses an HBO documentary about Dickie’s comeback being filmed as a framing device. Russell keeps the actual match footage on the relatively brief side and shoots the fights from a distance: we’re not privileged to be in the ring, but near it, or watching it on television.
As for the domestic conflicts, Russell sometimes lets the crowded family portrait spill over into exaggerated caricature, but his quartet of principals, each of whom could be identified by the film’s title, is arresting and vivid and memorable. They deliver the film’s knockout punch.
“The Fighter,’ which was nominated for seven Oscars – including the Best Supporting Actor statuette for Christian Bale and a nod for Melissa Leo as Best Supporting Actress — is a bristling, fact-based, splendidly-acted tale of trained fisticuffs, family infighting, and a boxer’s painful struggle to escape Palookaville.
Bill Wine is an Emmy-winning film critic who served in that capacity for WTXF and KYW Newsradio. He lives in Chestnut Hill.