Silver Screen: The Fighter ****
Just as no interest in ballet is required to enjoy Black Swan, you needn't care a bit about boxing to get caught up in The Fighter, David O. Russell's successful attempt to make a rousing pugilist movie that comes by its inspirational swells honestly.
Counterintuitively, Christian Bale leads the action as supporting player Dickie Eklund, a once-promising young boxer whose career peaked when he knocked down-- or did he trip?-- Sugar Ray Leonard. At twenty-three, Dickie picked up the crack pipe, eventually dissolving his career. When first we meet him he's like a manic, wild-eyed skeleton, shuffling and weaving underneath an oversized sweatshirt and baggy pants. He's amped up for an HBO documentary that he continually insists is about his big comeback.
Dickie is not the fighter of the film's title. That's his half-brother Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), the shy, sullen tagalong to his bombastic older bro. Now cresting the prime of his career, Mickey, under the erratic training and management of Dickie and their opportunistic mother (Melissa Leo), has lost most of his important fights and is seen by promoters, ESPN, and even by himself as a jobber, a stepping-stone contender whose primary function is to lose to more glory-bound boxers.
Micky's fortunes take a turn when he hooks up with feisty bar maid Charlene (Amy Adams, sublimely adorable as ever), a college dropout who is herself facing a future as a burnout. She's convinced Micky has more potential than as a footnote to his brother's fame and a poorly treated cash cow for his mother and her seven mostly housebound, dead-eyed hanger-on daughters. She, his father (Jack McGee, an excellent character actor turning in a great supporting performance), and his trainer (real-life trainer and police officer Mickey O'Keefe, playing himself) convince Micky to seek outside help for a last shot at the title.
Though there's plenty of boxing, especially in the second half of the picture, The Fighter is more family drama than sporting exhibition. Director Russell literally makes almost no attempt to get inside a fight as a filmmaker; it's an interesting and ultimately fruitful choice. The matches are staged and shot specifically to replicate TV footage, as though we were watching Micky's exploits on pay-per-view. This captures the action cleanly and efficiently and in no way undercuts the drama of those scenes, but it's very consciously not the stylized insider's look, à la Raging Bull.
Where Russell does get in close is inside the Ward household, which is all smokestained chintz and blue-collar clutter. The Wards have lived as an uncomfortably close-knit and dysfunctional clan under the oppressive leadership of matriarch Alice, a straw-haired authoritarian grown accustomed to having a son to serve as her meal ticket. Dickie was her favorite, and for years her most promising, and though she seems to harbor fairly little hope that Micky will rise to real prominence, she's more than happy to schedule bouts and reap the rewards. A Greek chorus of seven homely sisters natters incessantly in the background.
Wahlberg, impressively, sacrifices his ego a bit and lets Bale dominate the screen-- and does Bale ever dominate. Bug-eyed and even more upper-lipless than usual, he commands attention at every second and compulsively throws himself into the middle of the action. It might seem at first as though the notoriously fussy method actor is hogging the screen for his own vanity's sake. But it's the perfect meta-actualization of the Eklund/Ward relationship as presented, and when the wallflower warrior Micky does finally, much later in the film, assert himself as a protagonist in his own story rather than a side player in Dickie's, the movie generates its real inspiration.
David O. Russell is a goddamned weirdo, having been dubbed "David O. Crazy" by Dustin Hoffmann. His previous work, all of it very good, has ranged from the defiantly quirky to the overtly strange. His debut was the intensely awkward dark comedy Spanking the Monkey, in which spidery Jeremy Davies is driven by boredom and repression into a brief sexual relationship with his injured mother. Russell followed that up with his two most commercially accessible films, the underrated genealogical comedy Flirting with Disaster, starring a still-funny Ben Stiller and Patricia Arquette, and the intense Iraq War I satire Three Kings. His most recent project was 2004's self-consciously cerebral philosophical journey, the uneven but highly ambitious I Heart Huckabees.
The Fighter seems in many ways like Russell's attempt to prove he can make straightforward Oscar bait (and succeed) if he wants to. If that was indeed one of his goals, he certainly achieved it. The Fighter is a narratively conventional picture that colors within the lines of the inspirational sports drama. There are big music cues, improbable comeback victories, and training montages-- even one, at the movie's brief nadir, set to "Back in the Saddle." But Russell makes the formula his own, cutting to the quick of the material with his probing (but unobtrusive) camera and naturalist approach and making the most out of a strong screenplay fully realized by one of the year's best ensemble casts. The movie's inspiring conclusion is a foregone conclusion from the beginning, and yet when it arrives, it packs a real wallop, because Russell has earned it.