Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Fighter (2010) ***1/2

Directed by David O. Russell
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo
Written by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson

I really enjoyed this film.  I know, I've mostly put up reviews of movies I liked, but I have Twilight: Eclipse on the DVR, so a bad review is coming soon, I swear.

To start over:  I really enjoyed this film.  There was a magnificent dynamic between the characters.  This was ultimately an actor's dream.  The supporting roles are rightfully nominated for Academy Awards, and Wahlberg's nomination is unfortunately absent from the film's multiple nods.  The direction and cinematography were fantastic.  Russell uses a pseudo-documentary style for parts, then somewhat polished film for others, and during the fights, you feel like you're watching an HBO fight, it looks identical.  That ties in with the cinematography.  Hoyte Van Hoytema (who shot the spectacular 2008 vampire film Let the Right One In) uses the color of the film to depict the shifting perspectives inherent in the film.  Part of the film is shown as the filming of a documentary for HBO about Dicky Eklund (Bale), a one time almost boxing champ who fought Sugar Ray Leonard and knocked him down, then fell into a life of drugs and ultimately crack addiction.  So, what Russell and Van Hoytema do is use a hand-held camera to show the "fly-on-the-wall" perspective of the documentary film crew.  When the fights begin, you feel like you are watching the actual HBO fight.  The camera work does a great deal to immerse you into the film.

The story centers around Micky Ward (Wahlberg), a small time boxer out of Lowell Massachusetts.  He is fighting his way through the welter-weight devision of professional boxing.  His manager is his mother, Alice Ward (Leo) and his trainer is his older half-brother Dickey Ecklund (Bale).  The dynamic of this family can only politely be called dysfunctional.  In addition to Mickey and Dickey, Alice has had seven daughters from two husbands.  I will say that one of my biggest problems with the film is the depiction of the sisters.  Though this is based on a true story and the people portrayed did participate in the filming (there's a short clip at the end with the real Micky and Dickey and the performances were spot on, even based on a 30 second clip), I feel that the sisters were portrayed a bit too cookie-cutter.  They aren't particularly major characters, in fact they really only factor heavily in three or four scenes, but  I wish they had seemed a bit more real and less just loud, pushy women.  In some ways, that's how I felt about Alice too, but I suppose they could just be loud, pushy people.  Alice is dominating and overbearing (this may be a trend in last year's good pictures, as Black Swan had a similar mother character, just portrayed very differently), but her character is more fleshed out.  Alice thinks she is doing everything she can for Micky, as Dickey is no longer fighting, yet her primary concern is (and as far as the film lets on) always has been about Dickey.  The story progresses and ends as you would expect it to, in terms of the boxing portion of the story and that is my biggest point of contention. Micky gets his shot and wins, but that's not the important part of the film, so I am not reticent in revealing it here.  More on the ending later.

The main focus of the film is Micky and his relationship with his family.  Alice wants to control everything and guilts Micky into keeping everything "in the family".  Using phrases like "You wouldn't be nowhere without Dickey"  and other similar ones, she uses the family as a hammer to keep Micky from venturing out and doing well for himself.  Alice seems to think that as long as she is his manager and Dickey is training him, Dickey can make a comeback.  But, as I mentioned, Dickey is a crack-head, and that doesn't go well with boxing.

Micky's turning point comes when he is pushed into a fight by Alice and Dickey with a man twenty pounds heavier than he is, because his original opponent is down with the flu.  Micky gets pummeled and begins to question if his family is best for him in business.  Enter Charlene (Adams).  She is the local attractive bartender that Micky started talking to at the behest of his father ( Jack McGee).  Charlene enters Micky's life and begins to plant the seeds that maybe his family isn't best for his career.  After an injury Micky receives to his hand while trying to help his brother, Charlene and George (McGee) get him in contact with a local businessman who becomes his new manager, with the head of the gym, Mickey O'Keefe (played remarkably by himself) as his new trainer (Dickey was sent to prison), Micky begins his rise to prominence.  This is when the story starts to veer into typical sports movie formula, but still manages to skirt it due to the focus still not being on the fights themselves.  But there is a fight montage followed by a training montage.

There is a lot that happens in this film, most of it does not need to be recounted here.  I've touched on many of the plot points, but for 115 minutes there is a lot of story packed into it.  Now, as I've said, the crux of the film is the family and how these actors play these roles.  Bale plays Dickey very over-the-top and loud, but in an exceptional way.  He vanishes into his character in a way only Bale can.  I'm rooting for him on Oscar night to finally be awarded with the statue he's earned many times over in the course of the last ten or more years.  Leo is similar in her take on Alice.  She is loud and pushy, forcing everyone into feeling that her opinion is right because she does not let anyone contradict her, in fact she does not even let them speak for the most part.  She is very good in the role considering she is playing Bale and Wahlberg's mother and she is only thirteen and eleven years older then them, respectively.  The make-up for her was fantastic. She does a wonderful job of appearing as though she belongs in  the town of Lowell.  She will quite possibly win the Oscar for Supporting Actress, but that category is always unpredictable.  This is Leo's second Academy Award nomination, her first was for 2008's Frozen River.  Also competing for Best Supporting Actress, and very rightfully so, is Amy Adams for Charlene.  I haven't said much about her making her role seem very small, but it isn't and it is pivotal to the entire story.  She plays a very strong character and like Bale and Leo is remarkable in her ability to disappear into the role.  I'm hoping for her to win the Oscar, because this is her third nomination in five years, after Junebug in 2005 (a really small but very charming film) and the wonderful Doubt from 2008.  She's a great actress and she continues to turn in remarkable work.  This brings me to Mark Wahlberg.  He has been consistently playing great roles for the last 14 years, since 1997's Boogie Nights.  I'm always amazed at his work, except in The Happening, which I wish hadn't.  With the two strong, over-the-top performances the film needed an anchor.  That anchor is Wahlberg.  His quiet and intense performance is what allows the loud characters around him to be who they are.  There is a scene early in the film that sets up his contrast to the rest of his family.  They are all in a bar, all seven sisters, Alice, George and Dickey.  They are all whooping it up and being generally loud and Micky moves off to a separate table, on the same bench as his sisters, just removed.  The fact that he was not nominated for Actor in a Lead Role was a travesty.  That is not to take away from the actors who were nominated, but as Christian Bale said "The quiet roles are never recognized" and indeed it seems as though this time is as usual.

I stated earlier that I had an issue with the end.  The end betrays most of the tone of the film.  There is a big reconciliation with the family, then Micky gets his title shot.  The script eschews the normal sports movie clich├ęs by focusing on the family and it's various dysfunctions.  When the family problems disappear and the focus turns to the fight, the film looses some of it's punch (pun intended, and stolen from Leonard Maltin).  The fights are exciting, don't get me wrong.  Russell directs the fight scenes with gusto and Wahlberg does wonderfully in the ring.  Having said that, I think that directing the attention to the fight and dissolving the family tension makes the emotional climax of the film kind of rote and a little cheap.  I was drawn in by the fight and very happy at the end because he won, but the feeling was a bit empty.  The trouble is the turmoil of the entire film is dispelled with a couple of scenes and ta-da!  all ill will is gone and we can focus on the championship.

As it is fairly obvious by now, the good far outweighs the bad in this film.  I highly recommend you see it for all it's virtues, even if it does stumble in the last little bit.  

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