Thursday 20 July 2017

The Fighter: True story packs a punch

Dick Eklund (Christian Bale) and Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) in 'The Fighter'
Dick Eklund (Christian Bale) and Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) in 'The Fighter'

Paul Whitington

Over the years the boxing movie has become so encrusted with clichés that it's hard to imagine anyone saying anything new about it. The Fighter certainly doesn't. Although based on a true story, its plot could be that of a hundred other boxing pictures. But, within its conventional frame, David O Russell's drama is a tremendously solid, well-judged and entertaining piece of work.

Mark Wahlberg is 'Irish' Micky Ward, a welterweight boxer from a working class family in Lowell, Massachusetts, whose loving but smothering family are beginning to hold him back.

Micky's older brother Dicky (Christian Bale) was once a promising welterweight himself. Now he's Micky's coach, but, although he's a clever ring tactician, Dicky is not very reliable, mainly because of his serious crack addiction. Sometimes he doesn't show up for training at all, leaving his brother's training to a long-suffering police sergeant called Mickey O'Keefe. Micky's mother, Alice (Melissa Leo) always shows up, but her bombastic and uncompromising personality sometimes makes her son wish she hadn't.

Things come to a head when Micky is booked to fight a title contender in Las Vegas. Micky is hoping a good performance will earn him a shot at the world middleweight title himself, but when the other boxer pulls out at the last minute the promoter replaces him with a fighter who's a good 20 pounds heavier than Micky, and Alice and Dicky agree to it because of the money. Micky takes a bad beating, and is so disillusioned with both the sport and his family that he quits boxing altogether.

It's his new girlfriend, Charlene (Amy Adams), who persuades him to take it up again. For a fighter, Micky is quite a meek and recessive individual: overlooked by his mother, who coddles her first-born son Dicky, his voice is lost in a family dominated by Alice and a platoon of terrifying sisters. But in Charlene he finds a champion. She's well able to stand up to Alice and Micky's sisters, and when Dicky lets his brother down once too often, Charlene encourages Micky to get rid of him.

After managing to implicate his brother in a disturbance of the peace, Dicky is arrested and sent to prison. Under the tutelage of Mickey O'Keefe, Micky's career finally takes off. But he misses Dicky's companionship and nouse.

The Fighter may have modest aims, but it achieves them with admirable briskness and efficiency. Wahlberg has spent years preparing himself physically and mentally for this project, and he looks convincing both in and out of the ring.

If Wahlberg, an often underrated actor, is the solid, unfussy anchor of this film, the fancy acting comes courtesy of Leo and Bale. Both won awards at the Golden Globes, and both sail pretty close to hamminess at times. Leo's Alice is almost a cliché of the brassy working-class, Irish-American mother, but Ms Leo is good enough to make her a little more than that.

Bale's performance points to the pluses and minuses of basing a performance too closely on a real person. The actor apparently spent time with the real Dicky; he also lost a good deal of weight. His nervy, jumpy performance is impossible to ignore, and eats up everyone else's whenever he's on the screen. His total commitment to the character is impressive: whether or not all of this equals a good performance I'm not entirely sure. It's never dull, though, and Adams is very solid in an uncharacteristically salty role.

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