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.