The Fighter: Bale is a Knockout In This Boxing Drama
From the opening shot of the film, Christian Bale’s popped-out eyes, lanky frame, and constant mischievous smile take you away. Every time the camera is on Bale, it reminds us that when he’s not playing grim characters with gritty voices that refuse to smile, he can be a charming actor who can command a screen. When Mark Wahlberg, the title character, shares the frame with Bale, he’s like the security guard in a Jerry Springer episode, the straight man whose subtle expressions don’t grab us in a zoo of flamboyance. He does a fine job, but this movie requires a Robert DeNiro, a Sylvester Stallone, a Hilary Swank– someone we literally cannot take our eyes off of. David O. Russell’s The Fighter is an entertaining family drama, full of unexpected humor, great boxing sequences, and some terrific supporting performances by the main character’s family– but the Fighter himself is too low-key. His family members are the ones who pack all the punches.
Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) is known as the pride of Lowell, Massachusetts, because as a no-name boxer, with his lanky elusive style, he managed to knock Sugar Ray Leonard down. Now he’s almost 40, and his younger brother, Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) is a boxer who serves as a “stepping stone”– a boxer other boxers use to build their confidence and win record up. Micky and Dicky both believe Micky has a shot at becoming a title contender, so Dicky serves as his trainer while their mother Alice (Melissa Leo) serves as his manager. Unfortunately, Dicky and Alice seem more motivated to get the money that comes with getting a new fight than his son’s safety, after he is harangued into fighting a guy twenty pounds bigger than him. When a manager from Vegas comes to Micky and insists he could be getting better fights, Micky blows him off, saying his family has his best interest at heart. But the seed has been planted in his mind, and when Dicky gets arrested, Micky finally has the excuse he needs to pursue his dreams without his family holding him back.
David O. Russell manages to take the very prototypical underdog boxer story and injects some of his trademark quirk to make it feel like a different animal. It’s a funnier movie than I anticipated, and surprisingly for a film whose subjects are still alive, Russell doesn’t shy away from taking the family’s problems and letting us laugh at them. A repeated gag shows the family driving to the crackhouse to retrieve Dicky, and in a drug-addled bout of inspiration, Dicky tries to escape the back way instead of letting his mom see him in a den of drugs. The back way, however, is a two-story jump into a bunch of trash bags. This broad comedy, and Dicky’s constant botching of this escape route, consistently gets a laugh from the audience, but it’s laced with an undercurrent of sadness. This balance of humor and depressing family drama drives The Fighter forward.
This is simply a side of Bale we really have never seen before, except for flashes in American Psycho. He’s been depicted as a humorless angry actor in real life, and I’ve wondered if art imitates life or vice versa, since he’s rarely funny in films and he’s only charming in his attractiveness– he growls and grimaces his way through most of his roles, convincingly but often lacking real dimension. Here, he’s rarely not moving, smiling, or cracking jokes. Then, when his character gets mad and we see the growl and grimace, we realize that Bale’s grit is far more effective in smaller doses, where we see it emerging from a natural character rather than having it be the character’s trademark. Also terrific in the film is Melissa Leo as their mother, a terrifying boss of a woman who does truly think she’s what’s best for Micky, but she can’t see the fact that she still blindly loves Dicky more. Her command over her boys is palpable, and Leo’s big hair and ever-present cigarette become nearly chill-inducing, even as her lines are often quite hilarious. She’ll easily (and deservingly) be a front-runner for Best Supporting Actress this year.
Where Russell falters is in the total lack of interesting things for Wahlberg to do. Every famous boxer in film history was richly and deeply layered, and while the layers are all in place here, Wahlberg plays the role so low-key and simply that it’s like revolving the plot of a film around an extra. It’s a choice, so I can’t label it a failure as a performance or as a concept, and the film does work on the whole in spite of this, but you can’t call it one of the great boxing movies alongside Rocky or Raging Bull– though I must re-iterate that the boxing scenes do have a sense of gritty realism. The other problem the film has it that its structure gives it a sense of repetition: the family isn’t unlike an episode of Jerry Springer, where they yell at each other, swearing constantly, and cracking jokes to piss the others off. The first few times, this was amusing and gave us a strong sense of the family’s nature and the community of Lowell on the whole (I wonder how Lowell feels about being portrayed as a home of mostly foul-mouthed crack-smoking white trash). However, by the tenth time Amy Adams and Melissa Leo were shouting the F-bomb at one another, I began to grow weary of that brand of drama. The real fights in The Fighter take place outside of the ring, and the heavyweight contenders reside ringside– and while it still works in the end, it never soars the way great sports movies or family dramas do, because the man standing in the ring fails to knock us out.