The Fighter

Director    David O. Russell
Starring    Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, Jack McGee, Melissa McMeekin
Release    4 FEB 2011 (UK)
3 stars


4th February 2011

Here's another chance to read Matt's review of The Fighter, as it's out today. Boxing puns!

With Marky Mark's abs on full display in almost every scene, and Christian Bale going all skinny for his art once again, it's easy to see which one is meant to be the titular fighter - or is it? After all, Bale's character is the one struggling with drug addiction throughout the whole film so maybe he is the metaphorical fighter? No, no, Marky Mark's wearing boxing gloves - it's definitely him.

Therein lies the main problem with David O. Russell's boxing biopic. In a film that sees Wahlberg star as "Irish" Micky Ward, a Rocky-esque underdog on the path to becoming a champion under the tutelage of his boxer-turned-trainer-turned crackhead brother Dicky (Christian Bale), the main plot fails to live up to the promising sub-plot. Dicky has the most at stake, the most interesting character arc and, more importantly, the better, more-committed actor portraying him, but the film's main focus is, criminally, on Micky 'trying to make it big'.

With all the recent growly-voiced caped crusading, the frankly absurd Terminator-quashing and the obnoxious on-set yelling, it's easy to forget that Christian Bale is actually an immensely talented actor. Shedding muscle to play Dicky with a fragile, wiry frame, Bale judders and jitters on screen with a goofy mouth and a vacant stare that completely sells the idea of a drug-addled man still trying to live off his former glory. It's the kind of absolute transformation that steals every scene while screaming "Oscar!"

[gallery]It's a shame, then, that The Fighter has to spend so much of its time dedicated to the lunk-headed plank-acting of Wahlberg. That's not to say that he drags down the rest of the film; it's just that he plays the same old ineffectual... Wahlberg. As was discussed in a post-screening pub conversation, when has Marky Mark ever really stretched his acting abilities? Sure, he clearly worked out for the part and trained hard at the boxing, but he still approaches the role with his usual furrowed brow and blank look.

While, this is usually (somehow) enough to get by in previous films, next to the firecracking Bale, he might as well be dead air. Even Amy Adams, playing Micky's sassy barmaid love interest Charlene, breathes more life into her scenes than Wahlberg (although this can probably be attributed to the welcome sight of the talented rom-com actress acting all sexy and sweary for a change).

While Micky's overall 'rise to success against all odds' fails to completely satisfy, the boxing matches he faces along the way are small pockets of exhilarating action. Director David O Russell clearly excels at these faster-paced scenes, brilliantly capturing the thrill of throwing punches in the ring while integrating familiar, TV-like coverage of the sport. The resulting fight footage is genuinely exciting, allowing viewers to feel fully invested in each outcome - certainly much more so than in the other big plot point: Micky and Charlene's blooming relationship.

And then there's the rest of Micky and Dicky's family, which mainly consists of their many interfering sisters and controlling mother. With the line between family and business blurred, this creates the central conflict for Micky, who has to choose his own path and 'do what's right for him' - but his mother Alice (Melissa Leo) is portrayed as such an aggressively meddling cow that you just want the young boxer to ditch them all already and hope they never appear on screen again. But they always do. While these family conflicts also provide a few chucklesome moments of family relief, they still become as stifling to the movie as Micky's mother is to his career.

So, in a boxing pun-tastic conclusion then, the film is a mixed punch bag. While Bale turns in a 5-star performance, his character's story bobs and weaves around Wahlberg's simpler, steady efforts. No doubt there will be award interest in the film but, ultimately, it pulls too many punches to be the knockout it wants to be. Yes, I did just write that - I need to get a job reviewing films for The Sun.

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