Tuesday, March 15, 2011

New on DVD: 'The Fighter' goes all 10 rounds

"Marky Mark" Wahlberg and Christian "Ginger Jesus" Bale in "The Fighter."

Some films get under your skin before you even know it.

They sneak up on you, make you think that you’re not going to care and then hit you with the truth: you cared all along, it just took a few key developments to make you realize it.

The Fighter, the new film from I Heart Huckabees director David O. Russell, is one such film. Much of its runtime is devoted to explorations of poverty, drug abuse and general misery, but it all builds to soaring scenes of hope and triumph, and all those minutes of darkness were well worth the wait.

Based on the true story of a pair of boxer brothers in Massachusetts town in the early 90s, The Fighter of the title is Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a struggling boxer trying to break his losing streak while working his day job as a road paver. His trainer, mentor and resident upstager is his brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), a former boxer still trying to relive his glory days and disappearing for days at a time to hang out in a crack house.

As the film opens, a documentary film crew is following Dicky around, chronicling his boxing career and his efforts to make a comeback even as he tries to train his brother for the big time. What he doesn’t know, what no one in the family knows, is that the documentary being shot is about crack addiction, not boxing.

As Micky struggles to succeed even as his brother’s absence and bad decisions sabotage his career, he also must juggle his domineering mother (Melissa Leo) and his new girlfriend, bartender Charlene (Amy Adams), who is in a fight of her own to get Micky past his family’s hang-ups and into the realm of real boxing glory.
Much of the film, at least the first half, is often incredibly hard to watch. The filmmaking is top notch. Russell packs strong visuals and intense scenes together in a rapid fire cocktail of powerful cinema, but the fact that it is so powerful, so convincing, means a long ride of drug use, family tension, poverty, depression, pain and failure that’s real enough that it almost hurts to look at.

It’s almost a theatrical ordeal, and as a result it might seem unenjoyable. But where Russell and his cast and crew succeed is in portraying the turnaround, the high moments, the crescendos of bright glory. When the inspirational portion of this inspirational true story kicks in, it really kicks in, and the fact that the first two acts were so hard to watch makes it all the more satisfying.

The performances are almost all top notch. Wahlberg gives a solid performance as Micky, and Amy Adams, known for her sweetie romcom fare, shows off her chops in a grittier role. The real champion of the film, though, is Bale, who lost a good deal of weight for the part. It’s not just the fact that he’s skinny, though. It’s the look in his eyes, his nervous energy, his nonstop squirrelly shaking and yammering that make Dicky so convincing, and so tragic. It’s a daring, powerful performance, and he steals every scene.

The Fighter is a film that never lets up, that pummels you first with despair, then with unrelenting hope. It’s a film about struggles, about not just one fighter but a whole town of them. Some of it might be a cliché, and it’ll never be Raging Bull (the best boxing film EVER), but rarely has a film about a working class hero been done so well.

Matt’s Call: Definitely one of the best films of the year, made even better because it’s hard to make an original film about a boxer any more. 

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