Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale in The Fighter

The Fighter

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

28 June

 

Mike Tyson bites Evander Holyfield’s ear, 1997

On this day in 1997, during a boxing match for the WBA Heavyweight Championship title, one of the fighters, “Iron” Mike Tyson, bit off a chunk of the ear of his opponent, Evander “The Real Deal” Holyfield. The fight was a rematch, after Holyfield had knocked out Tyson in the 11th round seven months earlier, to take the title. Billed as “The Sound and the Fury”, the fight took place at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, and right from the start Tyson was complaining to referee Mills Lane about Holyfield headbutting him, which he’d also complained about at their original match. Holyfield took the first two rounds, though head-butted Tyson halfway through the second (unintentionally, he said; the referee agreed). Tyson came out of his corner for the third round without a mouthguard and was ordered by Lane to put it in. He did so, but when Holyfield got him in a clinch, Tyson responded by biting off a chunk of his right ear and spitting it onto the ground. In spite of Holyfield’s protestations, the fight was resumed, whereupon Tyson bit Holyfield’s left ear. At the end of the round, Mills Lane spotted the bite mark to Holyfield’s left ear and disqualified Tyson.

 

 

 

The Fighter (2010, dir: David O Russell)

Who is the fighter in The Fighter? The obvious answer is Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) a dumb-as-toast boxer being coached towards a big fight by his brother Dicky (Christian Bale) who himself had a go in the ring before blowing out back in the 1980s. But watch “Irish” Micky – entirely passive, withdrawn, deferring to anybody who’s asking, in thrall to his mother and sisters, but especially to Dicky, a twitching ball of ADHD, rictus-mouthed, not a bad man but certainly someone you wouldn’t want to be around for too long. Bale won the Oscar for his performance, for supporting actor, which shows that the Academy fell for director David O Russell’s (and his screenwriters’) feint too. Because the fighter, obviously, is Dicky and the lead in this film is Bale, not Wahlberg. Everyone in the cast knows it. Including Wahlberg who not once makes a bid for glory or the spotlight in his beautifully controlled performance (in a fair world he would have won the supporting Oscar). In fact, in The Fighter, every single person is fighting, except for Micky, the actual pugilist, who is cossetted and primped, stroked like a Kobe bull, walked like the lump of meat he is up to the ring, where he finally does his bit of jabbing, is then led away, has his gloves delaced and returns to his life of dumb torpor.
Even Charlene (Amy Adams), the bright spark who wanders into Micky’s life and drives an emotional wedge into the family – she’s upset their careful schedules – has to fight for her man. And, in fighting for him, she wins the grudging respect of this dim-bulb family of hard knocks operating at the shitty end of the boxing game. This family is David O Russell’s great achievement – the Greek chorus of sisters who spend the early rounds of their bout with Charlene shouting “skank” at her. Melissa Leo as the mother, all leopard skin tops, bottle blonde hair, cigarettes and a mouth that could release seized wheelnuts. She’s quite brilliant (her Oscar entirely deserved).
How many boxing films have there been? People have been turning them out since the 1890s – two actors, lots of action, a winner and a loser, an easily controlled environment, you can see the attraction. And cheap. But David O Russell has come up with a new spin on the old formula, by pointing out that a man is only as good as his team. If the team fights for him, he stands a chance. If it doesn’t, he’s yesterday’s papers. Without that novel approach this would be just another boxing film – the Rocky training sequences, the “couldabeenacontenda” speeches, the dope on the rope finish. With it, it’s something entirely different. This is the film that atoned for I Heart Huckabees, Russell’s wacky flop of six years earlier. It marked his comeback – Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle followed – and proved he was something of a fighter himself.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Full of great performances: Bale, Wahlberg, Leo, Adams
  • A boxing movie with a difference
  • The punchy, funny screenplay
  • The distinctive cinematography of Hoyte Van Hoytema (Let the Right One In, Her, Interstellar)

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Fighter – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “The Fighter”

  1. In many ways, "The Fighter" is the film of 2011. A family drama with a pugilistic background. The punches, physical and emotional in and out of the ring took me completely by surprise. What didn't surprise me was Mark Whalberg's signature all over the place. Let me explain: Many years ago I was at a lecture by director Martin Donovan when during the Q&A somebody made fun of the fact that Calvin Klein underwear model Marky Mark had played a part (his first acting role) in Donovan's made for TV "The Substitute" Donovan with elegance and firmness destroyed the guy asking the question, describing Whalberg's strengths and ended up saying "Mark Whalberg will be one of the top actors around and he will probably be running Hollywood within a decade" I had Donovan's words buzzing in my ears when I sat speechless watching "Boogie Nights". Whalberg also produced "Entourage" and the startling "In Treatment". He now produced "The Fighter" and his performance, interior and powerful, dominates the film allowing other members of the cast, to shine in truly showy roles, Christian Bale for instance – really good. Melissa Leo is a stand out as the mother/manager. Superb. So I won't be surprised to see Mark Whalberg receiving the top honors at the next Academy Awards, as an actor and producer. He certainly deserves it. Bravo!

  2. After Rocky, Raging Bull, Ali, Million Dollar Baby, Cinderella man, and many others, one begins to wonder how many more boxing movies we really need in the world, and what a new one can bring to the table. Indeed, watching The Fighter, one can't help but wonder what the film can do to renew the genre and bring something new to the table. Unfortunately, the answer is "nothing much". The script is a pretty conventional rags-to-riches story, whose most interesting element is the relationship between Micky Ward and his brother, Dickie Eklund. Luckily, Russell and company recognized that this was the strongest aspect of what is otherwise a good but ordinary and somewhat flawed script, with some problems with flat characterizations and unnatural-sounding dialogue. However, everyone involved in the film tries their best to transcend the script, and for the most part, they succeed.

    Russell's direction is absolutely fantastic. His use of the camera – which still has that indie looseness, free-moving and hand-held and gritty quality to it, which really adds to the atmosphere and energy the film tries to capture. His staging of scenes is fantastic and he usually just lets his actors riff off of one another, sometimes sticking to the script but sometimes talking over one another, interrupting, and creating a very dynamic back-and- forth that further lends to the realistic quality of the film and its setting. A fantastic rock- oriented soundtrack only adds to this energy and atmosphere. In terms of bringing something new to the table of boxing movies, Russell employs a very interesting technique of filming the boxing scenes as they were shown on HBO pay-per-view TV in the 90's; cheap video quality, multi-camera set-ups, the whole package. The boxing scenes were all shot over 3 days, which left the crew just enough time to run through one boxing match at a time and just shooting it as if it were an actual match, the cameras capturing everything, including mistakes and mess-ups and spontaneous, uncontrolled occurrences which yet again add to the very loose and realistic style the film attempts to capture. It is a very interesting and unique technique I have not seen used before, and I thought it was a fresh approach to boxing scenes, which have become very conventional ever since Raging Bull.

    Ultimately, though, this is a movie about two brothers and their overcoming demons and obstacles in order to succeed and reach their mutual goal, together. Being a character-based film, the success of the acting is a key to the success of the film, and luckily, it is in this field that the film succeeds the most. Mark Wahlberg is adequate in the lead role of Micky Ward. I have never thought much of him as an actor and think that he did an "okay" job on this film; not bad but not particularly noteworthy. However, his supporting cast all shine, and his chemistry with them, especially with Christian Bale, is really what sells the movie for me. Bale's achievement is nothing short of revolutionary. He completely steals the show as Micky's crack-addicted older brother and trainer, a former boxer himself, and a shadow of his old self, except he can still throw one hell of a punch and knows just what Micky needs to do in order to succeed. Bale completely embodies the role and really gives it his all – both in his appearance (hollow cheeks, bulgy eyes, balding) but also in his bravura performance. It is an incredible feat of acting, one of the best I have seen all year; Bale's best work as an actor yet, and totally deserving of all the accolades it will inevitably receive. Also worth mentioning though are the two main female supporting roles, namely Amy Adams as the tough and sassy but supportive girlfriend, and Melissa Leo as the overbearing mother. Both actresses are very much out of their comfort zone, which is just what makes their performances so good. Adams, who has never really shown her tough side like she does in this film, does a spectacular job, and really creates someone human and relatable out of what is otherwise an underwritten character. The same goes for Melissa Leo: her character could have gone the completely one-dimensional villainous way, but Leo adds a certain humanity to the character which just makes her seem more sad than vicious.

    Ultimately, The Fighter tells a pretty conventional story in an interesting and not necessarily conventional way. It is a film that could have been over-dramatized and heavy-handed had it been put in another director's hands (see Cinderella Man for an example of over- dramatization), but Russell and his cast reign it in and set out to create a very specific atmosphere and set a particular mood that lends the film a sense of realism and a very unique dynamic energy that, with the help of the fantastic performances from the cast, help carry it above and beyond its conventional script.

  3. The Fighter has been a must-see film of mine ever since at least the end of October. Not only did the cast look to function as one strong, cohesive unit, Christian Bale looked to transform himself yet again and had gotten completely absorbed in his role as Dicky Eklund. From just viewing the trailer, Bale seemed to give a performance that reminded his fans just how talented he can actually be. The Fighter also seemed to have a lot of emotion and heart; two key ingredients that go on to making movies like this legendary. The real test would be if The Fighter could hold up to other great boxing films like Rocky or Raging Bull and in this critic's humble opinion, it does just that.

    Mickey Ward (Wahlberg) is following in his brother Dicky's (Bale) footsteps and is trying to make a name for himself as a boxer. Dicky has been giving Mickey advice and helping Mickey train for as long as they can both remember while their mother Alice (Leo) has been acting as his manager the entire time. Mickey knows it's time for a change if he expects to make a serious impact in the boxing world, but a crack addicted brother and a mom who thinks she's helping his career when she's really hurting it have both been holding him back for far too long. So when Charlene (Adams) and Mickey become an item and Dicky winds up in prison, Mickey makes the hardest decision of his life and keeps fighting with new management in tow and seemingly pushes his family out. As Mickey's mother tries to wrap her head around her son replacing her as manager, all hell breaks loose once Dicky gets out of prison. As the date for the most important fight in Mickey's career fast approaches, will he have the support of his family or has everything already fallen apart past the point of being repaired?

    The cast is the driving force behind this film. The relationships and arguments that take place between Mickey, Dicky, their mother, her seven daughters, George Ward (Jack McGee), Charlene, and Mickey O'Keefe (as himself) are really the heart behind all the boxing that takes place. Melissa Leo turns in an emotionally powerful performance as you can tell she only wants the best for her family, does everything within her power to do just that, and still seems to wind up hurting them in the long run. Amy Adams character, Charlene, seems to want nothing more than to be with Mickey but is also relying on his success to be the ticket to her bettering her life. Then there's Mark Wahlberg who always seems to play the same role with the same thick Boston accent. The thing about Mickey though is that Wahlberg fits the part very well. The extensive training Wahlberg went through and his experience made him a shoe-in for this role. The real gem of the film is Christian Bale though. Bale has been rather disappointing performance-wise since The Dark Knight and it's nice to see him back in top form here. He surely looks the part as his awkward body language, sick, clammy skin tone, and the way he seems to be chewing on something when he's not eating anything really makes him come off as a genuine crack addict. I was beginning to think that success had gotten to his head, but even if it has it's great to know that he can still turn in engaging performances like this when he feels like it.

    What's interesting is the song, "How You Like Me Now?" by The Heavy that was also used in the trailers for Faster is used several times in The Fighter. It seems to be utilized more efficiently in The Fighter though. It felt like the song was used in Faster just because it sounded cool, but the song seems to have a stronger impact in a film about a boxer trying to turn his life around better than a film about a guy trying to gain revenge for his brother's death. It was a very welcome addition to the soundtrack and makes the opening segment to The Fighter even more memorable than it already was.

    The film also wastes little time taking full control of your attention. You don't lose interest until that screen turns black. With the little bits of humor thrown in for good measure amongst all of the family brawling and knockout punches being thrown around, it was just really easy to get lost in the film. It was almost as if you were part of the documentary crew filming Dicky watching this all take place in person. The one complaint I have is that it all seems to end rather prematurely. While everything does come together nicely, the ending just doesn't feel fully gratifying. It felt like the film ended right in the middle of the climax, but consider it a nitpick. It's still an excellent film.

    The Fighter is an engrossing and emotionally powerful drama that features an incredibly strong cast and the best performance from Christian Bale in a long, long time. I honestly haven't liked a boxing film this much since Raging Bull. With all of the end of the year awards talk and so many movies being released recently and in the coming weeks that'll be potential award winners, it is well worth every effort to see The Fighter in theaters. It has one of the most well-rounded and well put-together casts of any film to be released in theaters this year and deserves to be seen on the big screen.

  4. The story of Micky "Irish" Ward and his boxing career with his crack addicted brother at his side. Apparently Marky Mark was so hell bent on getting this film made that he stayed in "shape" for years and years just in case the film went into production. That's dedication and passion for you, yet the man still manages to be the weak link.

    It's not really his fault, David O. Russell packed the film with a lot of talent. Christian Bale plays Dicky Ecklund, Micky's crack addicted brother who tells the same story over and over again, about him knocking out Sugar Ray Leonard. It's his claim to fame. There is a film crew following him around, he thinks it's going to be about his comeback, yet it's really about the harsh realities of crack addiction. Bale, again, submerses himself in the role. He is pure method. You can not like him as a person, or even an actor, but you can't deny his passion for the art. He is on the thin side again, with thin balding hair and brown teeth. He looks deathly ill in every scene. The man has one of his finest roles to date and will no doubt be nominated come award season. I hope he actually takes home the award. He is without a doubt, the most interesting character in the film.

    Their mother is played by Melissa Leo, another performance worthy of recognition come award season. Her desire to see her kids rise to fame blind her from the truth. She denies the drugs and the failures and believes she knows what's best for her kids. This means not letting them get a real chance because it would be with a real manager and she would be left behind. Family is important to her and she wants to keep everyone very close, even if it harms their chance at making a name for themselves. She of course, doesn't realize this. Amy Adams is the love interest, you know there had to be one. She manages to pull Micky away from the family that is dragging him down. They don't like her for it. She has her own inspirations too, yet the story isn't interested in them. The main focus of the film is with Micky's bumpy road to the championship fight. Since this is based on a true story, I can't really fault it for becoming a bit formulaic and predictable, yet it is.

    David O. Russell is notorious for getting angry and violent with his crew/cast. He was in a physical fight with George Clooney on the set of Three Kings and anyone can go on youtube and check out the melt down he and Lily Tomlin had on the set of I Heart Huckabees. Both films coincidentally star Mark Walhberg, so it seems he doesn't have a problem working with the combative director. I can't deny that the man has talent. I really love Three Kings and found I Heart Huckabees to be an ambitious project for the sheer weirdness of it all. With The Fighter, he plays to a more conventional audience. In terms of boxing films, it works. It plays on the down and out character, the poverty of his life and the sheer determination he has to make a name for himself. It's no Rocky, or as others have mentioned Raging Bull, but it is good enough to be mentioned with them.

    Russell always has an eye for a creative shot. Check out Three Kings colour scheme for what I mean. Here he uses TV cameras for the boxing matches. Interesting move, it feels like we are watching it at home and are not really in the ring with them. I admire directors who think outside of the box. Russell does this, no problem. He also decides to include real footage of the characters. The film has some home video segments throughout and during the credits we get to meet the real Micky Ward and Dicky Eckland, which is even more reason to appreciate Bale's performance.

    The film trips a bit because of the lack of emotion from Walhberg. I dig the guy and enjoy his films, but his range isn't there yet. When given a role that he can play the absurdity of, he scores. Watch The Departed for that. For a film where the audience needs to get behind a character, to root and cheer for them to overcome their obstacles, he falls a little short. Thank goodness the film makes up for this with the performances from Bale and Leo.

    The Fighter features great music, engaging performances and a predictable, yet true story. I felt attached to the characters and hoping they would make smart decisions. If a film can get me to care about the characters, I say bravo.

    The Fighter is a winner in my books.

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