Review: “The Fighter” (2010)
WARNING: ROCKY SPOILERS
According to IMDb.com, there have been 12 movies from various countries called “The Fighter.” David O. Russell’s, starring Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale, is the lucky thirteenth.
The story may seem familiar. It’s about an underdog boxer, a gentle man from a working class neighborhood, who wastes his talent for most of his youth, and then, on the other side of 30, takes one last shot at proving he weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood, and finally, finally triumphs, with his trainer in his corner and his best girl by his side.
We can be forgiven for asking: OK, so how does it differ?
For one, “The Fighter” has the advantage of being mostly true.
It has the added advantage of Christian Bale’s over-the-top, look-at-me-I’m-not-Batman performance as Dicky Eklund, a one-time middleweight contender, trainer to his half-brother, Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg), and crack addict.
In ’78 Eklund went the distance against Sugar Ray Leonard but lost by unanimous decision. He also knocked down the champ in the 8th round. Eklund’s been living off that moment ever since. He’s “the Pride of Lowell,” never at a loss for words, and, as the movie opens, an HBO camera crew is following around the brothers. We assume it’s pre-fight hype, since Mickey’s about to step in the ring again despite three straight losses, but the crew is actually following around Dicky. He crows about how they’re filming his comeback, but one look at his emaciated body and you wonder, “What comeback?” Yet there’s the camera crew again. A third of the way through the movie, we get our answer. A local at a bar asks a member of the crew what the movie’s about, and the guy replies, “I told you. It’s about crack addiction.” That line lands like a body blow. Dicky’s self-delusions, and his family’s delusions about him, are laid open in the matter-of-factness of the response. What else could it be about?
The HBO doc is, in fact, a turning point of the movie. It’s the moment Mickey comes to his senses about Dicky, Dicky half comes to his senses about himself, and the family’s eyes, at least momentarily, are opened. For a second I condemned this family, the awful mother, Alice (an incredible Melissa Leo), and those harpyish sisters, for needing HBO to show them how their son/brother lives. A second later I realized we all need such docs about our loved ones. My older brother is an alcoholic, about which he and I have no delusions, but I don’t know how he spends his days. The people closest to us are still unknowable.
When the HBO doc airs, Dicky’s in prison, on too many counts to mention, but he hasn’t lost his swagger. As they’re about to air the doc, he revels in the attention and applause the other inmates give him. “Going to Hollywood!” he says. He thinks it’s going to be fun. He’s forgotten what he’s said. He doesn’t know who he is.
Out in the world, Dicky is full of lies and bonhomie but in the doc he speaks the truth. “You feel young, like everything’s in front of you,” he says of smoking crack. “Then it fades and you have to get high again.” There is no comeback. The comeback is in the crackpipe.
Up to this point, Dicky has not only been a lousy brother and son, he’s been a lousy trainer, too. Mickey is forced to wait for him at the gym; he’s forced to wait for him with the limo that’ll take them to the airport, and then to Vegas, to fight another welterweight. But in Vegas Mickey is told his opponent has come down with the flu and the replacement is a middleweight, a guy with 20 pounds on him. He fights him anyway and gets his face smashed in. Back in Lowell, he and his soon-to-be-girlfriend, Charlene (Amy Adams), are talking:
Mickey: Everybody said I could beat him.
Charlene: Who’s everybody?
Mickey: My mother and my brother.
(Earlier they’d had a bit of dialogue as spare as anything by David Mamet. Mickey has two bandages on his face and Charlene tells him, “Your thing’s coming off.” He reaches for the bandage above his right eye and she says, “Your other thing.”)
Mickey should be the pampered center of attention—as any contender is—but his needs are overshadowed by his brother’s, who sucks the air out of any room he swaggers or stumbles into. Everyone warns Mickey he needs to cut his brother loose or miss his shot, and, after the HBO doc, he takes their advice. A local cop and trainer, Mickey O’Keefe (playing himself), begins to train him, with money from a local businessman. The mother has a fit, and flies at her son and Charlene, with claws bared and tongue wagging, her awful daughters tagging along. A fight breaks out among the women. A catfight? Not close. There’s nothing sexy about it. Family is no support here. The mother, like Dicky, thinks she’s the center of the story when Mickey’s the one in the ring. Much of the movie is spent waiting for Mickey to realize this, to articulate this, himself.
Once he breaks free from his family, once he has the money to train year round, he begins to win, but the movie knows this isn’t the whole answer. Mickey’s been called a “stepping stone,” the guy other guys use to get their shot, and before a big match with Alfonso Sanchez, an undefeated contender with a title shot, Mickey visits Dicky in prison and is asked about his fight strategy. In the audience we’re thinking, “Don’t tell him,” but Mickey tells him and Dicky finds fault and offers an alternative. In the audience we’re thinking, “Don’t listen, get out, don’t let him drag you down again,” but it turns out Mickey’s original fight strategy got him nowhere. It’s Dicky’s, adopted late in the match, that wins the match. Now it’s Mickey with a title shot.
First, more family drama. It’s not enough to break free of family—as nice as that sounds—because you’re never truly free of family. So conflicts have to be resolved. People have to be reconciled. Out of prison, back in the gym, and back in the ring with his brother, Dicky has scattered Mickey’s supporters—Mickey O’Keefe, Charlene—and left him with his mother and sisters, who talk up Dicky yet again, who confuse the movie yet again, and it’s Mickey’s Popeye moment. All he can stands, he can’t stands no more. Thus: body blow, body blow, Dicky goes down. Mickey finally finds his voice. He confronts his mother, his sisters, his brother. He basically says, as we all need to say, “This is my movie!”
For something so messy for so long, it gets neat quickly. Kudos to the filmmakers for making it seem plausible that within five minutes of screentime: 1) Mickey finds his voice; 2) Dicky gives up crack and rallies his brother’s original supporters; and 3) Mother and sisters accept their subordinate status. And we’re set up for our finale and the title shot.
The Fighter” is a good movie, a worthy movie, but not a great movie. Wahlberg is fine, but he’s playing his gentle-voiced, blending-into-the-background leading man again. (See: “Planet of the Apes,” “The Truth About Charlie,” “The Italian Job.”) He’s a bit dull. In this way, the movie parallels its own story. Just as Dicky overshadows Mickey, so Bale’s performance overshadows Wahlberg’s. I’m not sure if this is ultimately a strength or a weakness, but I wish Wahlberg’s characters had as much in them as Wahlberg seems to.
But what is a weakness of the movie? That original “Rocky”-like synopsis. The basic story of “The Fighter” is the most oft-told story in Hollywood history: the underdog triumphs. It’s what we want while sitting in the audience but it’s also why the movie doesn’t resonate much afterwards. Mickey wins! That’s nice. This is what it takes to win! That’s nice. This is a story of two fighters, two brothers, Mickey and Dicky, who both triumph over their personal demons! That’s nice. And it ends. And it’s complete. And we’re happy.
That’s what makes great entertainment. But that’s not what makes great art.
I compare “The Fighter” inevitably, and unfairly, to Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” which is a movie about an entertainment (professional wrestling) rather than an art (boxing), yet is, itself, closer to art than entertainment. Because it finds a different way out. Its title character, Randy the Ram (Mickey Rourke), is on the wrong end of his 40s, reaches a dead end and sees no alternatives, so his return to the ring, and impassioned speech in that ring—a triumph in the trailer—is actually a suicide. That’s the unique and horrifying way out. In the final shot we see Randy soaring off the turnbuckle and out of the picture and out of, one assumes, life, but we have to fill in the end ourselves. Maybe that’s why that movie keeps resonating. We have to assume its ending as much as we have to assume our own.