Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Fighter

When I was a kid my grandparents had a satellite dish the size of a compact car. To a ten year old, it was a hulking tower in the backyard that seemed like it could have been part of a weapons system. While I lived with my grandparents I never managed to figure out how to operate the remote control for the satellite—without the right configuration of codes, the channel wouldn’t appear. The only memories I have of watching satellite television in those days had to do with boxing matches and the news that the Chief Theater in Pocatello had burned to the ground. For some reason watching boxing on HBO with my grandfather was seared into my memory. Those memories are what drew me to David O. Russell’s The Fighter.

As much as he must hate it, Mark Wahlberg will forever be “Marky Mark” to most of us. Training for the role of Micky Ward, Wahlberg’s body seemed to return to what it was two decades ago when he was rapping and modeling underwear. I think there was probably a bit of Micky in Mark, actually. There have certainly been bumps in the road through his career and his background isn’t all that different. Was Wahlberg on the receiving end of an Oscar snub? Yes. But the actor who most deserved both the Oscar nomination and win was Christian Bale playing Micky’s brother Dicky Eklund. Christian Bale was nothing similar to his more recent characters, particularly Batman in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. He plays a gaunt, washed up, drug addict who tells everyone he encounters that HBO is making a film about his boxing comeback when in reality they are making a documentary about crack addiction in America.

The relationship between Dicky and his younger brother Micky, their dysfunctional family and the city of Lowell, Massachusetts is at the heart of a film that really isn’t a fighting movie. Yes, the film is about Micky turning around his boxing career, a career that amounted to being a stepping-stone for other boxers on the rise. And yes, the film is about Micky leaving the training of his troubled brother to take the advice of others who pushed Micky to success. Yet, throughout the film the audience is asked to choose between Micky’s boxing success and Micky’s relationship with Dicky. In this respect, The Fighter is nothing resembling Rocky. Watching Dicky battle his own ego, his addiction and the reality of never making a comeback overshadows his brother’s battle for boxing success. It left me wondering if the title was referring to Micky, Dicky or both.

Though Christian Bale wasn’t the only actor nominated for the film, his acting certainly was the strongest. Melissa Leo deserved her nomination and win for portraying Alice, the mother of Micky and Dicky (and what seemed like at least a dozen sisters). She was unyielding in her support of her sons, Dicky more so and in a way that anyone who has felt inferior to a sibling can understand. Her constant forgiveness and blindness to Dicky’s addiction seemed obvious to everyone, including the viewer, but Alice herself. The steely edge of Melissa Leo’s performance was as skillful as Bale’s and added to the dynamic that left me with the overall feeling that The Fighter wasn’t really a fighting movie. Amy Adams also deserves mentioning. She was as strong as I’ve seen her in the role of Micky’s girlfriend. The wholesome image most of us have of her was challenged and it no longer seems such a stretch that she could play Janis Joplin on screen. Something tells me that there may be more Oscar nods in Adams’ future.

From time to time a movie will come along that seems to be one thing on the surface—be that in trailers or previews—and another thing entirely once seen beginning to end. The Fighter is that kind of film. I don’t enjoy films that are especially violent nor do I always seek out boxing films (with the exception of Million Dollar Baby), but this film was not at all what I had expected and I found it pleasantly compelling.

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