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The Fighter

USA 2011
Directed by
David O Russell
115 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Andrew Lee
4 stars

The Fighter

Synopsis: The true story of the early career of “Irish” Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg). Coached by his crack-addicted brother, Dicky (Christian Bale), and police officer, Mickey O’Keefe (played by himself), he manages to shake off a series of losses to have a shot at the world welterweight championship.

There’s clearly something about boxing films. People can’t stop making ‘em. Rocky and Raging Bull are the best known, but there’s plenty of others (going back in time, try Michael Mann’s Ali, John Huston’s largely forgotten Fat City, Humphrey Bogart’s last film, The Harder They Fall, or Robert Wise’s real-time classic The Set-Up and let’s not forget the ladies of Million Dollar Baby and Girlfight). Maybe it’s the visceral nature of the fights, maybe it’s the drama that surrounds the training and the tactics. I’m not sure, but I find them strangely compelling when they’re done well. And David O. Russell is an immensely talented director and one of great versatility since you’d be hard pressed to connect this film with Three Kings or I Heart Huckabees. But it’s the work of a great filmmaker.

There’s not an ounce of fat on The Fighter, it’s a story that starts up smartly and flows effortlessly. And given that for the most part it’s a story we know all too well, that’s impressive. You know Micky is going to rise over adversity and get his shot. You know it mainly because it’s unlikely Hollywood is going to throw an A list cast at a film about a guy who never made it. But it doesn’t matter, because everything about the film is arresting. There’s a light touch to it, a humour that manages to wring gentle laughs out of tragedy without being mean. And it pulls in forgiveness without being mawkish. It’s the work of people deeply in love with the characters of the story, which is wonderful because it would be so easy to demonise Micky Ward’s family. They could easily be seen as a nightmare of unwitting selfishness and delusion. But they’re human, and just as Micky loves his dysfunctional family, so do the filmmakers. Melissa Leo as his mother Alice is incredible, but Christian Bale as Dicky is stunning. The man keeps on transforming himself body and soul for his roles. It can’t be healthy but the benefits are all on the screen. Dicky is a walking disaster area, a crackhead who constantly relives the moment he knocked down Sugar Ray Robinson, though it’s openly debated whether Robinson tripped or not. He’s wrecked his life, and he’s slowly wrecking Micky’s too. And then Charlene (Amy Adams) comes along, and is immediately hated by the family for being an outsider willing to question the way things are. And things start to change while the family starts to fracture.

There’s more drama outside the ring than in, and it’s a wonderful story that’s handled expertly. Everyone is allowed their dignity (with the possible exception of Micky’s sisters) but they’re not put on pedestals. It’s just people being people, who can’t get along with each other but stay together for the sake of Micky, because he loves them all and wants them all in his corner.

Although The Fighter is a story you’ve heard before, what sets it apart is that it’s told by an expert storyteller with a cast of actors who deliver great performances. Truth may not be particularly original, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t good material. This is a great film about interesting people, told with humour and kindness. In the pantheon of boxing films, it is up near the top.




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