A confident looking Mark Wahlberg took to the stage last night at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre to introduce the world premiere of his film The Fighter to an eager AFI Fest audience, the likes of which he joked he hadn’t seen since his days with The Funky Bunch. Almost willing the audience to love the film, he talked about how hard he’d worked for four years bringing the thing to life. On paper, it’s easy to see what attracted him. In the true story of boxer “Irish” Micky Ward and his troubled older brother, you have a potentially powerful family drama wrapped in the arc of a triumphant boxing comeback movie. It’s the stuff of potential movie and Oscar gold, but like many such passion projects, it’s apparent Wahlberg could never see outside of his love for the real story and The Fighter never gets off the ground. Ultimately, these characters he’s so fond of aren’t all that interesting. In fact they’re mostly repulsive and the result is a drama that sags when its supposed to soar.

In the early 1990’s, “Irish” Micky Ward was a nearly past-his-prime boxer living in Lowell, Massachusetts in the shadow of his older half-brother and mentor Dickie Eklund, himself a former boxer still clinging to his one moment of glory: scoring a knockdown in a losing fight against the great Sugar Ray Leonard. Dickie knows boxing and he knows what works for Micky, but he’s also a crack addict on the downward slide. Dickie is two men and Micky finds himself stuck between them. He has a little brother’s love for his older hero, but he also has one more shot at winning a title and Dickie is holding him back. Adding to the push-pull Micky feels is a mother/manager who dotes on Dickie’s former success while mismanaging Micky’s barely alive career and Charlene, a pretty but somewhat fallen bartender with a heart of gold whom Micky falls for and who convinces him he’ll only succeed if he gets away from his crazy family.

There are plenty of opportunities here for dramatic fireworks, but they’re never fully taken advantage of. Inside the ring, the boxing matches themselves are wholly unconvincing. The sound effects are amped up to fool you into thinking that punches are really landing and the scenes are skillfully edited to disguise the fact we’re not looking at real boxers, but you never feel the real violence in the ring. It’s almost as though the filmmakers don’t want you to know these men are trying to murder each other. They might as well be dancing a ballet. Worse still, all the boxing scenes were shot on video to emulate an HBO broadcast. The intention was probably to achieve a certain verisimilitude – TV after all is how most of us experience the sport – but it just adds another layer of distance to an act that already seems staged.

Of course, a boxing movie doesn’t need authentic boxing in order to work. Unfortunately, The Fighter fares little better outside the ring. Mark Wahlberg brings his earnest doofus routine to the role of well-meaning Micky and that’s fine, but he’s completely at odds with both Christian Bale as manic Dickie and Melissa Leo as their high-heeled white boot wearing chain smoker of a white trash mother. Dickie is a monkey – an irritant more than a character. Add a canned laugh track and he’s a goofy-but-lovable sitcom weirdo. Leo meanwhile is a cartoon sideshow freak. Her performance elicits laughter more than pathos and the less said about her brood of bitchy daughters who seem to have been pulled from a Saturday Night Live sketch the better. It’s possible everyone has nailed their real life characters down to the last gesture – indeed a clip of the real life Micky and Dickie at the end of the film shows that Bale has probably done exactly that – but blown up on the big screen they’re repellent grotesques and it’s impossible to root for them to do anything but go away.

Director David O. Russell should’ve had Bale and Leo dial their performances back a notch or two so they at least felt like they were characters in the same movie, but they’re given free reign. In fact, it’s hard to pinpoint a single distinguishing mark that Russell has left on the film. At this point it’s nice to see him succeed with a trouble-free project that actually makes it to theaters, but there’s no sign of the promise he showed in his earlier films and that’s too bad.

As Charlene, it turns out that Amy Adams is the strongest part of The Fighter and she’s involved with most of the film’s best moments. She’s funny and sharp and she’s given a rare opportunity to be both tough and sexy. She makes the most of a part that is written as little more than the supportive girlfriend type. The more the film spends with her and the less with Micky’s family the more tolerable the whole thing is. Unfortunately it’s not enough.

30 some years ago, Sylvester Stallone mounted his own passion project about a down on his luck boxer. Rocky may have its flaws, but it still works today. The character of Rocky was a meathead like Micky Ward, but his basic hopes and dreams – his fight for dignity and respect and love – transcended the boxing ring. They were the universal desires of the classic underdog. The Fighter takes some half-hearted stabs at the power of brotherly love, but it never overcomes the fact that it is ultimately about a family of goons whose only hope in life comes from men pummeling the faces of other men. It’s hard to care much about them at all.

20 Responses to “AFI Fest: The Fighter (2010)”

  1. Can’t say I was looking forward to this, but I’m sorry to hear that Bale’s continued his backward slide. Where has the actor from American Psycho/The Machinist gone?

  2. It’s fair to say the crowd really seemed to enjoy it and the reviews I’ve skimmed as of this morning are positive on balance.

    Bale threw himself into the character and he did a good job, but the character itself was distracting especially compared to Wahlberg.

  3. Aw, that bad, huh? I’m not really a big Wahlberg fan… but I’ve never seen Boogie Nights. xD

    But I’m glad to hear Amy Adams is the best part of the film. Apparently, she usually is whenever we’re talking about so-so films~~

  4. Despite the fact that I’ve heard several others praise the film, why do I have this feeling I’m likely to agree with this review the most? The trailers alone reinforce the notion that Bale, at least, is seriously phoning this one in.

  5. So, other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?

    This is a bit of surprising and unpleasant news, though my reaction to the first (only?) trailer wasn’t positive except for Adams, who appears to have many great performances ahead of her.

  6. I’m surprised, especially as Bale is getting phenomenal reviews. The O-word has been bandied around a lot, too. If Bale truly nails his character, as ‘monkey’ as he is/was, then who’s to disagree?

    Personally, I just want Bale – the guy who gave us such memorable characters in The Machinist, American Psycho and (yes) The Dark Knight/Batman Begins – to finally get the recognition he deserves.

  7. I’m sad to hear the secret screening didn’t thrill your pants off, Craig, but I’m not completely surprised by your response. I guess time will tell how audiences react to this one.

  8. I’d sleep fine at night if they give Bale the Oscar. Like I said in the review, based on a clip of the real Dickie, he really captured the guy.

    I don’t know, I was stunned to wake up and read the praise for this movie. It’s been pre-sold as an Oscar contender and as I was watching it, I felt like I could feel the air being let out of the Oscar balloon. Yet, no one seems to agree with that assessment.

    Oh well!

  9. there are some other reviews who praise the movie(even if it’s not perfect,it’s effective,emotional and inspiral with great great acting)
    Anne Thompson,Kris Tapley or Steve Pond support the movie

  10. It’s true Caro. On balance most people seem to like it. Some more than others, but all mostly positive.

    Jeff Wells, Jeff Sneider (The Wrap) and Drew McWeeney (Hitfix) were also very positive.

    I feel like I saw a completely different movie.

  11. Hey Craig you do know that Mark Wahlberg said that the real family is actually way more rowdy than how they are depicted in the movie. Bale was actually holding back because the real Dickie has way more energy and you would need subtitles if Bale were to completely mimic Eklund.

  12. Frank, that doesn’t surprise me too much, but it does make me wonder why anyone wanted to make a movie out of these people in the first place. A feel-good movie about repellent people is a tough play. Stallone managed it with Rocky, but he didn’t have to stick to a true life person. He had full creative license.

    The Fighter wants to be uplifting family drama and obviously it’s working for a lot of people, but it didn’t for me at all.

  13. We loved this film. Excellent story. Excellent acting. Check out our review Two Jews On The Fighter

  14. The best acting in the film came from the two people being least talked about: Wahlberg and Adams.

  15. I liked this a bit more than you, Craig, but I share your criticisms. The seven sisters are useless; unlike Bale and Leo, they serve absolutely no purpose, hence their lack of identity. I thought that Bale was great, as was Adams, but I wasn’t that impressed with Wahlberg’s performance, partly because he’s given such a weakling to play. To the idea that, probably, the movie is very faithful to what happened in real life, I guess I wish they’d changed things up. For example, I really hope the scene where the angry cops go out of their way to destroy Ward’s right hand (and JUST that) happened in real life and they left out the part where someone tried to sue the cops. Otherwise, just a very manipulative scene they could have changed.

    The performances and direction impressed me, by and large, but the movie as a whole was neither as good as hyped, nor good enough for me to remember it a few days from now.

  16. Bale would’ve been great in another movie that held up better to the rampant scenery chewing. Wahlberg I think was effective, but he and Adams were both buried by Leo and Bale.

  17. Now that I’ve seen the film I can voice my agreement with Craig’s assessment. Although I found the ending uplifting, I keep thinking Russell’s vision ultimately missed the mark for reasons I can only speculate on. I suspect he’s not mature enough as a director to pull off this material.

    Specifically, I think Russell doesn’t know the value of restraint. Even when subject matter or characters are over the top, there’s such a thing as “too much.” This too muchness seems evident in most aspects of the film including the camera work, the editing, some of the key performances. Bale could’ve been great in this; as it stands, he was intermittently great. But he and Leo appeared to be reaching so far as to go outside themselves, thus cheapening their performances. This can happen to the best of actors if there’s no director with the the maturity to provide guidance.

    Amy Adams — wonderfully — didn’t fall into the trap that Bale and Leo did. Her work was a revelation. Neither did Wahlberg fall into the trap, but when compared to Bale he came off as a bit flat, this despite the fact that his character existed to a significant degree in his older brother’s shadow.

    This would’ve played better as a TV movie. It’s interesting to note that Darren Aronofsky was executive producer — I wish he’d had more input.

  18. Bale gets a lot of credit for really throwing himself into the role and he seems to have captured the real guy, but the movie wasn’t strong enough to contain him. Adams and Wahlberg are so restrained. It just feels like two different movies to me and I only liked the Adams half.

    Just like with flashy cinematography and editing though, flashy big performances are the ones that draw all the attention as if it makes people feel smarter if they can actually SEE the craft for themselves.

  19. . . . as if it makes people feel smarter if they can actually SEE the craft for themselves.

    That’s a well-put insight, Craig. Like I suggested, Bale did some great things, but I found his work uneven. He can do better. Melissa Leo can, too.

  20. I hope Hawkes wins, but I don’t think he will.

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