Powerful story, performances are a great combo
The thing about boxing movies is that they’re never really about the boxing. They’re about everything else the fighter has to contend with: family, friends, anger, addictions, the often-corrupt machinery of professional sports, the body’s failure in the face of age and abuse. David O. Russell’s “The Fighter’’ is no different. Otherwise it would place Micky Ward’s legendary 2002-2003 trio of fights with Arturo Gatti at the center of the movie instead of relegating them to a mention just before the end credits roll.
A Ward biopic without Gatti? That’s like a Muhammad Ali movie without Joe Frazier. Yet “The Fighter’’ is this close to a triumph: a movie that steeps us in the grit of its time and place — Lowell, Mass., in the 1990s — and electrifyingly dramatizes Ward’s battles with the family that almost loved him to death.
The first person we see is Micky’s half-brother Dickie Eklund, and it’s a horrifying sight. Christian Bale has gone back to his skeletal “Machinist’’ weight for the role. His eyes bright and hollow, he sits on a couch for an HBO interview and proclaims his readiness for a ring comeback. Everyone but Dickie seems to realize he’s in a documentary about crack addiction.
Dickie had his shot in 1978, when he knocked Sugar Ray Leonard to the canvas (and he’d be the first to throw a punch if you suggest Leonard might have slipped). Now he’s training his kid brother (Mark Wahlberg), with constant input from the boys’ pit bull of a manager-mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), and her seven fearsome daughters. No wonder Micky’s record in the ring is inconsistent — he has never drawn a breath for himself. Every hook, every jab, is second-guessed by people who know better.
“The Fighter’’ spans the years 1993 to 2000, when Ward pulled away from his family to make a name for himself. After a disastrous bout against an over-matched last-minute replacement (Mike Mungin; the fight actually took place in 1988), Micky understands he’s fighting Dickie’s battles, not his. With the backing of his girlfriend, Charlene (Amy Adams), he finds a new manager and new trainers, slowly pulling himself up the rungs toward title contention. It helps that Dickie’s in prison for much of this time, after a ridiculous shakedown scheme to raise money for his brother has gone bad.
Indeed, at its punchy, profane best, “The Fighter’’ struts along the line between melodrama and comedy. The first time Dickie jumps out a crackhouse window into a dumpster to avoid his mother, it’s alarming; the second time, it’s farce. If the older brother is known as “The Pride of Lowell,’’ you sense that Lowell’s more than a little embarrassed about the honor.
Actually, I’m curious what Lowell will think of the movie as a whole, since it paints the town a deep, bilious gray. A decade-plus of Boston-area movies has rubbed our noses in the yawp of working-class neighborhoods but never as relentlessly as this. The triple-deckers sag with decay and the faces are bloodshot with vanished hopes. You watch half-wondering if there’s a statute for civic libel but also rapt, because Russell makes the place jump with life, his camera swiveling to catch every desperate street-corner showdown.
He shoots the fights on video, a tactic that’s the opposite of “Raging Bull’’-style operatics. It works: The high-key lighting and the jagged VHS lines give the punches immediacy, and even if you know the outcome you’re caught up in the suspense, expecting the worst because that’s what Micky’s used to.
Yet as well-made as “The Fighter’’ is, the performances put it over. As Dickie’s the loudmouthed star of his extended clan, Bale is the secret star of this movie, his ruinous charisma stealing the spotlight from the little brother with talent. The actor is mesmerizing, unpredictable, much too much — you realize why people are drawn to Dickie and also why they give him a wide berth. I’m not sure whether Bale should be nominated for best actor, best supporting actor, or best animated feature.
With her frosted hair and tips that hide claws, Leo also goes the distance as Alice, overacting in the service of motherly venom. Mama Ward brooks no rebellion; when Micky’s dad (Jack McGee) suggests the boy might be better off with other management, he gets a frying pan to his head for his pains. A shout-out, too, to the chorus of sisters, Irish-American furies who include in their number Conan O’Brien’s sister Kate and the redoubtable Jill Quigg (“Gone Baby Gone’’), a bouillon cube of pure Bay State meanness.
Yet it’s Mark Wahlberg’s movie, and not just because he spent years trying to get it made. The star has the tricky role of a soft-spoken man in a family of loudmouths, and his power in and out of the ring builds in satisfying increments. The scenes with Adams’s Charlene are tender and unexpectedly moving; Micky has finally met someone willing to listen. You could say that Wahlberg’s playing Wahlberg. You could also say the star’s stubborn gentleness fits the part so well it doesn’t matter.
“The Fighter’’ is so good, so engrossing, for so long, that its failure to find an ending to match is perplexing. In part, the shape of its subject’s life works against tidy storytelling: The family issues dramatized here were resolved years before the fights with Gatti that made Ward’s name. Yet the climactic March 2000 bout with Shea Neary isn’t the best replacement, since it closely replicates a fight earlier in the film. As the credits roll, you hear the wind whistling out of the movie’s sails — or maybe it’s our own disappointment that life doesn’t snap together as neatly as “Rocky.’’ “The Fighter’’ doesn’t go out with a bang but with the less showy sound of a man winning a bigger battle by decision.