Movie Review: The Fighter
By Matthew Huntley
December 30, 2010

Worst. Celebrity. Sex. Tape. Ever.

The Fighter is essentially a boxing movie. We feel like we’ve seen it before and will likely see it again. But that’s not to say it’s without purpose or value. It tells a raw, unaffected story about real people, and although it features famous Hollywood actors, it’s their ability to make the characters natural and believable that gives the movie its heart. Most Hollywood movies are about people who could only exist in their on-screen worlds. The Fighter is about people we believe could live in our own world - they could be our classmates, our neighbors, our friends, or our family.

The movie tells the true-life story of Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Dicky Ward (Christian Bale), a pair of working-class half-brothers from Lowell, Massachusetts. Dicky, the elder brother, has become the symbol of town pride ever since his short-lived professional boxing career when he knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard in 1979. Fourteen years have passed and Dicky has since descended into a life of drugs and debauchery. He’s fallen so far he has to sneak out of his drug supplier’s house by jumping out the second-story window and landing on a pile of garbage.

Micky has more promise. In between paving roads, he trains with Dicky for the welterweight division and hopes winning a fight will allow him to make more money and, in turn, more visitation rights with his daughter. He’s not out for fame or fortune but simply the chance to prove he’s more than a blue-collar laborer who’s capable of standing outside his brother’s shadow. All his life, Micky has been told he’s learned everything from Dicky, which may be true, but he wants to let his family, including his mother (Melissa Leo) and father (Jack McGee), know that he’s his own man. He no longer wants his family to play such an influential role in his life, which may be one of the reasons he starts dating a local bartender named Charlene (Amy Adams), whom his family doesn’t think is worthy.

Even though The Fighter is based on a true story, I figured it would be forged like most sports movies and revolve around the “big match” at the end. And while a big fight does indeed take place, it’s hardly the main focus of the story. What director David O. Russell and screenwriters Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson concentrate on instead are the characters and their ensuing personal dramas, which are quite involving. It’s crafted in such a way that, much like real life, it’s not so easy to anticipate where it’s going or where it’s going to find its creative force. Though Micky’s story isn’t larger-than-life, he’s sympathetic and down-to-earth, and we connect with him on that level. He’s an honorable man who wants to please everybody while fulfilling his own dream. Because it’s easy to find ourselves in his position, we identify with and care about him. It doesn’t even matter that he’s a boxer (the “The Fighter” title can represent anybody).

Because the story is relatively traditional, it’s even more important the performances be strong and stand out. Wahlberg, Bale and Adams have all been good before, but here they’re asked to play against type. Wahlberg is a compassionate hero and does a good job of playing an uninhibited everyman who’s easy to like. Bale’s character is the most eccentric, so it’s inevitable he should play Dicky with the most idiosyncrasies and animation, but after seeing footage of the real Dicky Ward, it’s clear Bale wasn’t just doing an over-the-top impression. He really embodies this man, right down to his facial expressions and walk. And Adams shows she can play coarse and tough as much as she can light and cheery (Enchanted), which further confirms her broad range.

The Fighter doesn’t break any new ground and its overall arc is rather standard, but its performances and gimmick-free storytelling allow us to become invested in what happens to the characters. These are not necessarily people we want to know but the movie is grounded enough that it makes us feel like we could.