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AFI FEST 2010 Review: THE FIGHTER

Kate Erbland

by: Kate Erbland
December 9th, 2010

Editor's note: This review was originally published on November 10.

Rating: 3.5/5

Writers: Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson (screenplay), Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson, and Keith Dorrington (story)
Director: David O. Russell
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Melissa Leo, Amy Adams
Studio: Paramount Pictures

David O. Russell’s true life tale of boxer “Irish” Micky Ward, THE FIGHTER, hits us with a two-pronged attack – its own “head, body, head, body” stance. It’s not just a rousing sports flick, it’s both a family drama and an exploration of the value of fleeting triumphs. THE FIGHTER doesn’t pull punches when it asks the tough questions – how do you know if your family really has your best interests at heart? How long does an achievement have merit? And, more than anything, what does it mean to have once been great?

When we meet Micky (Mark Wahlberg) and his big brother and trainer Dickie Ecklund (Christian Bale), Micky is trying so hard for one last big shot in the ring, while Dickie is holding so firmly on to his (his onetime knockout of Sugar Ray Leonard), that both men find their lives consumed with the brief moments within a boxing ring’s ropes. It’s this at-odds issue that will frame the entire experience: Dickie’s struggle to hold on to lost greatness, in opposition to Micky’s search to find if he even finds himself worthy of the same. Dickie was once “the Pride of Lowell,” but he’s fallen so far from grace that he’s actually the subject of an HBO documentary about drug addiction. And that’s all true – the real Ecklund was followed by HBO for eighteen months for HIGH ON CRACK STREET: LOST LIVES IN LOWELL.

But while Dickie is still all hard-living, Micky is trying to make a real go of it. He’s not at all like his brother, not at all like the rest of his family – Micky wants something real. While his brother frequently shines off his responsibilities as both trainer and brother, and his mother Alice (a mesmerizing, infuriating Melissa Leo) oversteps her roles as both manager and mama hen, Micky just tries to show up and get things done. As Micky’s quest wears on, we also get to meet his spitfire love interest Charlene (Amy Adams, turning in some of her most solid work to date) and his ever-watchful sisters. The seven sisters of the Ecklund/Ward clan serve as a bizarre Greek chorus - imparting no real wisdom, but providing further insight into the family and its dynamics just by their very existence. Shorthand? This is one messed up family.

But despite digging for deeper meanings and often coming up with entertainment worth watching and worth discussing, the film languishes when it comes to its drive. The fights in THE FIGHTER never take on the cast of importance they would in other sports films. In fact, when we reach the film’s ultimate fight, there’s scarce build up to it. And that may be due to the fact that the real looming specter in THE FIGHTER is not some match (even if it’s a World Championship) – it’s the impending premiere of the HBO documentary about Dickie. That just may serve as the best illumination of the film’s principal problem – for a film about Micky Ward’s rise to greatness, it feels an awful lot like a film about Dickie Ecklund’s tumble from glory. While THE FIGHTER is ostensibly about Micky and his path, it too often skews back to Dickie. In turn, Bale supplies another remarkable performance here, but it frequently overshadows what Wahlberg is trying to do on-screen. It’s Wahlberg’s film, but you can’t stop looking at Bale. In fact, most of Wahlberg’s strong, silent broodiness gets shunted aside for the bawdy bellowings of all his nearest and dearest.

The film is certainly Russell’s most physical one to date – using a quickly moving camera that approximates a pacing boxer (even when we’re not in the ring) aids in making it feel both self-referential and carefully crafted. THE FIGHTER also gracefully straddles the line between necessary violence and gratuitous violence. When a punch is thrown – and, believe me, plenty are thrown – they feel real, and the weight of them is obvious to the audience. There’s more than a few gasp-worthy slugs in THE FIGHTER. Russell’s choice to lens and light Micky’s big fights with the grainy, oversaturated look of a real televised boxing match only adds to the vitality of the film’s look.

Like another of this year’s films, CONVICTION, there is the lingering issue of what really happened after the credits roll. Whereas CONVICTION glossed over the untimely death of Kenny Waters, THE FIGHTER does try to take a more delicate stance on Dickie. It doesn’t attempt to reform him in a complete manner, but it hedges on what happened after – even just last year, Dickie had troubles with the law, including drug, assault, and attempted murder charges.

THE FIGHTER is not a masterpiece, but it is easily one of the most solid, well-acted efforts of the year. Sports dramas please audiences and engage crowds because we know who to root for – we get one good guy at the beginning to stick with through punch after punch. THE FIGHTER falters because we so often lose our good guy in the face of the manic machinations of a bad guy. It’s unfortunate that they’re brothers. It’s unfortunate that Dickie was once Micky’s hero. It’s unfortunate that we have to place that designation in the past tense.

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  • Guest

    “for a film about Micky Ward’s rise to greatness, it feels an awful lot like a film about Dickie Ecklund’s tumble from glory”

    That’s because the film is meant to be equally about Micky and Dickie-they are both the title character-hence the generic name for the film “The Fighter”. Bale and Wahlberg are co-leads-even though they are pushing Bale as supporting so they won’t compete with each other.

    • https://gordonandthewhale.com KateErbland

      To me, it felt like the film was very much trying to stick with the more “feel-good” side of the film, Micky’s side; but it was simply taken over by Bale’s much bigger (and more emotional) performance.

  • Gerald Scanlon

    I read a lot of Fighter reviews as i am from Lowell. This review is the best written of the bunch. A fair review!

    • https://gordonandthewhale.com KateErbland

      Thanks, Gerald, I appreciate your comment!

  • https://gordonandthewhale.com KateErbland

    I’m glad you point that out – the “knockout” is a running discussion in the film. There are a number of times that Dickie is called out on NOT knocking Sugar Ray out. For those not familiar with the supposed knockout, it is presented as fact in the beginning of the film, then slowly chipped away at as the film goes on (as is Dickie). That’s why I simply call it the knockout, as viewers will see how it really shook out. Appreciate the knowledge, though!

    • bd

      wasnt it a knockdown not knockout ?

      • https://gordonandthewhale.com KateErbland

        It is referred to both ways in the film. Dickie consistently talks about KOing Sugar Ray, which is a big part of understanding the sort of delusion he’s built up in his mind about his career. See more of my comments above!

  • Fitefansho

    That’s very interesting indeed that the myth of Dickie beating Ray Leonard is a focal point of the film, because it sure is a focal point of his actual life. Ignorance combined with local “pride” helped create the myth that Dickie beat/KO’d/knocked down (whatever) Sugar Ray when in fact the reality of the situation is so ordinary and that is simply that Ray Leonard beat the snot outta Dickie for ten outta ten rounds. Can’t wait to see the movie.

    • https://gordonandthewhale.com KateErbland

      I look forward to hearing your thoughts on how they handle it in the film after you see it!

  • http://www.twitter.com/chasewhale Chase Whale

    As always, spot on review by the lovely Kate Erbland.

  • VC15

    3.5/5
    are you high,girl?
    its AT LEAST a 4.5/5

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