The Fighter is a boxing movie. That means you will be seeing some blood and some violence and some rope jumping and sparring. The more unexpected parts of this is probably the fact that so much time is spent on the family dynamics between the lead character Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his seven sisters, his manager/mother Alice (Melissa Leo), and most importantly his drug-addled trainer/brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale). The relationship between Mickey and Dicky is fascinating, to say the least. Based on the true story of the welterweight fighter Micky Ward's life, this is a tale of overcoming difficult circumstance and seeing at what point familial obligation and loyalty stops being admirable and starts becoming a burden.
Dick Eklund squandered his potential as a boxer through hard living and drugs. As we enter the story we are shown Micky and Dicky walking down the streets of Lowell, Massachusetts, where they are obviously well-known. They are being trailed by a camera crew that Dicky insists is there to show his come-back to boxing, when in reality the cameras are there to capture the life of a crack addict for HBO. The documentary exists, by the way. It's called High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell (1995).
There is a lot of real grit in this, but there's also the kind of comedy that actually sides with the characters even as it makes gentle and loving fun of them. That is a difficult trick to manage to master and it's even more gratifying to see it done in this context. Even if this is predominantly a fight movie, and it even has the obligatory training montage, there is still room for laughter and that makes all the difference. Micky is tough as nails, make no mistake, but even so he looks about six years old when his mother/manager bawls him out. It makes him all the more likeable and human even with the terrible punishment he takes in the ring.
This movie is also clearly one of those labour-of-love projects that come to fruition because of one driving force, in this case Mark Wahlberg's dedication to the idea. It is a portrait of a working class hero, the typical underdog having his day. It's very fitting, in a way. He does a good job of it too, making a very convincing pugilist to the point where you don't feel like the camera is doing all the work making the boxing scenes look realistic. More importantly, the character is understated, something that feels a little unexpected in this particular genre. Christian Bale completely steals the show, though, as usual. He has the mannerism and the physical appearance down perfectly and is, as so often before, completely fascinating to watch. His interpretation of Dick Eklund as a complete screw-up who manages to pull it together eventually has the right blend of humour and pathos to make him likeable despite the odds.
The boxing matches are shot with the same cameras and set up as HBO pay-per-view was in the '90s, which cleverly adds to the overall realism and feel of it. The soundtrack is full of dirty rock'n'roll like "Saints" by The Breeders and Dropkick Murphys, and there's a point to that too, when you take the working-class background into account.
The supporting female cast is also much more crucial to this than any other boxing movie I can think of, with the loving supportive girlfriend, who actually gets in a few fights herself, played beautifully by Amy Adams and the overbearing mother who would have given anyone mommy-issues, played by Melissa Leo. It's dysfunctional as all get-out, but that only makes it more interesting.
The Fighter lives by its cast and the interpersonal dynamics and it is most certainly worth watching even if you're not a boxing fan.
The Fighter (2010) directed by David O. Russel stars Mark Wahlberg (Micky Ward), Christian Bale (Dicky Eklund), Amy Adams (Charlene Fleming), Melissa Leo (Alice Ward), Mickey O'Keefe (himself), Jack McGee (George Ward), Melissa McMeekin ('Little Alice' Eklund), Bianca Hunter (Cathy Eklund), Erica McDermott (Cindy Eklund), Jill Quigg (Donna Eklund Jaynes), Dendrie Taylor (Gail Eklund), Kate B. O'Brien (Phyllis Eklund), Jenna Lamia (Sherri Ward), Frank Renazulli (Sal Lanano), Chanry Sok (Karen) and Caitlin Dwyer (Kasie Ward).