Just a man (and his family) and his will to survive
With the possible exception of Billy Crystal, there’s nothing the Oscars loves more than pugilism. Now, just in time for the 63rd awards, with seven nominations to its name, arrives The Fighter, the ‘real life’ story of welterweight champion ‘Irish’ Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his struggles to land that belt. Logic and hype suggest the film will follow Rocky, Raging Bull and Million Dollar Baby to Academy glory. Yet maybe not into the hearts of fight fans per se.
Truth be told The Fighter isn’t so much a film about boxing as it is case study of family dysfunction. Rather than visual action it’s this weighty subject matter that will reap its rewards come awards night. Yet it may also disappoint an audience thinking they’re buying a ticket to a film about boxing and not people shouting at each other on porches. The film is undoubtedly a dramatic portrayal of complicated family life – at times almost like the opening lines to Philip Larkin’s This Be The Verse played out against the grey backdrop of nineties Massachusetts. But there are times when The Fighter does suffer from a distinct lack of fighting.
That said, perhaps the film’s title serves more as allegory than a literal signpost to the film’s supposed subject matter. More than anything else this David O.Russell film (after Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees his third with Wahlberg) is the story of Ward’s half-brother Dicky Eklund. Played by Christian Bale, Dicky is one of modern cinemas most striking creations, a permanently neurotic, faded fighter with less brain cells in his head than teeth. It’s the scenes with Dicky in them that sizzle most – unlike the actual boxing, which is brief, gritty and unflinchingly brutal. It’s Dicky’s triumphant battle against addiction to crack cocaine that replaces the emotional gut punch you might find in a movie like, say, Rocky.
Likewise the actions of the films women; Melissa Leo as Micky’s chain-smoking mother and manager, Amy Adams as his girlfriend Charlene (both well intentioned but neither partial to a hug and a kiss) with a supporting cast of backcombed Ward sisters who spend the films running time spitting on things and calling each other sluts (or, to coin their memorable slur, “MTV girls”). With the exception of henpecked father George (Jack McGee) there’s no one in the film who isn’t fighting, really – whether it’s each other, themselves or being able to tell each other some emotional truth with words instead of throwing a frying pan at each other.
It’s this familial fury that replaces the slugging in the ring, and will leave most coming away feeling like they’ve gone twelve exciting, dramatic rounds regardless. You may come to see The Fighter expecting fighting. If you can overlook that primal disappointment, chances are you’ll leave feeling emotionally punch-drunk on a better film than you expected.