Thursday 19 October 2017

A tale of undisputed majesty

Eamonn Sweeney

O ne of the key scenes in The Fighter shows Micky Ward knocking out Alfonso Sanchez with a body punch. And by the time the film ended I had some idea of how Sanchez felt. Because The Fighter is the kind of movie which leaves you winded, bruised and somewhat stunned.

There has never been a sports film quite like it. And if you do nothing else this week but go to see this movie, it will still be one of the great weeks of your life. That's how good the damn thing is. You leave the cinema feeling that you have not watched a movie as much as participated in the lives of the characters. And, slightly embarrassed, you check your cheek to see if there's any trace left of those tears you found yourself shedding.

Micky Ward was a very good light welterweight from Lowell, Massachusetts who had the distinction of being involved in Ring Magazine's fight of the year in 2001, when he outpointed Emanuel Augustus, in 2002, when he beat Arturo Gatti and 2003, when Gatti reversed the decision. The trilogy of fights with Gatti are up there with the three Ali-Frazier battles and the series of bouts between Sugar Ray Robinson and Carmen Basilio as the finest examples of sustained rivalry in the history of the sport.

Yet The Fighter doesn't actually show the Gatti fights, instead choosing to end with Ward's victory in London over Shea Neary in 2000 for the, let's face it, relatively meaningless World Boxing Union title. It doesn't matter. Because director David O Russell has created a masterpiece of a movie beside which even the likes of Raging Bull and Rocky look pallid and inauthentic. It is simply the greatest sports movie ever made. Ah, let's not beat around the bush here, it's one of the finest American films ever made on any subject. The Fighter does for the sports film what Stagecoach did for the western and Public Enemy did for the gangster movie.

If there were any justice The Fighter would win the Oscar for best movie. But, although it's been nominated, the gong will instead go to either The King's Speech , a crashing bore which might have been created by a computer fed the plot of every BBC costume drama ever filmed or The Social Network, a slick hollow piece of smart arsery which functions as a kind of Fistful of Dollars for nerds. I mean, who really cares if some inbred posh boy overcomes his stutter or if Geek X rather than Geek Y gets the credit for inventing Facebook? But you do care about Micky Ward and everyone belonging to him.

The Fighter will probably win a couple of Oscars, with Christian Bale as Micky's crack addict half-brother Dicky Eklund and Melissa Leo as their mother Alice getting best supporting actor and actress gongs. That's fair enough, a scene involving the duo as they sit in a car outside a crack house is one of the most moving things ever put on film, a scene to stir the soul of any wayward son who's ever broken a mother's heart.

But there isn't a bum note in the whole thing and Mark Wahlberg in the title role gives another wonderful performance as a struggling soul puzzled by life's tendency to land you a sucker punch. It's a kind of update of his bravura display in Boogie Nights. That it will lose out to Colin Firth's Upper Class Twit of the Year impersonation is the kind of injustice Micky Ward was more than familiar with.

It may well be that The Fighter will find its ideal audience in this country. Because, though the ethnic flavour isn't ladled on with the heavy hand you find in a Scorsese movie, there is something unmistakably Irish about the struggles of the Ward family. (Micky's nickname was 'Irish Micky Ward'.)

They bring to mind Brendan Behan's comment that if an Irishman is going to be a bastard, he'll be a bastard in an Irish way. They break your heart, the Wards, but they do it because you know them so well. There's a bit of us in them and a bit of them in us. And the characters are drawn with great subtlety. Alice, who manages Micky for a while, looks at first glance to be a thundering bitch, but as the film wears on you detect a terrible vulnerability about the woman. Micky's girlfriend Charlene looks like the heroine of the piece at first, but she can be just as unreasonable and controlling as the fighter's fearsome brood of sisters when it suits her. In the space of two hours you come to know these people as well as members of your own family.

But if it is largely a film about family, The Fighter also captures the soul of the sport it depicts. You're never allowed to forget how boxing defines Micky and his brother and the amount of hard work their calling demands. The fight scenes have you on the edge of your seat and don't stint on either the brutality or the glory of the boxing game. There has been more good writing about boxing than about any other sport so perhaps it's not surprising that the best sports movie ever made focuses on it as well.

You're reminded that in no other sport is defeat so crushing as it is in boxing where a man has had to endure the awful humiliation of being physically beaten by another man in public. You live every round with Micky Ward, you hurt when he hurts, your soul soars when he prevails.

When the credits begin to roll and the real Micky and Dicky appear on camera, you marvel at how perfectly Wahlberg and Bale have caught the essence of the characters. And then the lights go up and you walk back into real life, a different person from the one who bought the ticket two hours before, changed by the magic of cinema and the power of art.

You owe it to yourself to see this one.

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