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Monday, Dec. 27, 2010

The Fighter

Mark Wahlberg rises to the challenge

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Boxing has long been a favorite topic for filmmakers looking for life’s gritty backside or simply a thrilling outsider’s tale of accomplishment. With The Fighter, director David O. Russell (Three Kings) and a quartet of screenwriters achieve both. Based on the true story of champion light-welterweight Micky Ward and his half-brother Dicky Eklund, The Fighter is also an opportunity to explore that favorite locale for filmmakers in search of American working-class heroes with distinct accents and mannerisms: Boston (nearby Lowell, Mass., in this case).

Naturally, there are boxing matches along the way to provide Russell the chance to shine in the ring and the editing room, but fights occupy only a few minutes in this two-hour film. As has usually been true in the best boxing fiction (fact-based or not), the fights are the catalyst for a wider story about loyalty, corruption and ambition. If Rocky was a fairy tale about a fighter with more heart than head, it’s become an enduring archetype. There’s a little bit of Rocky in The Fighter.

The entire cast turns in exceptionally good performances, starting with Mark Wahlberg playing Micky in a low key—intensely focused in competition, yet often diffident outside the spotlight. Although he grabs the attention of his flinty, bartending girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) by face-bashing a rude customer, he tends to defer to the judgment of others—especially his family. He’s sweet, but not a deep thinker. Micky’s trainer/half-brother Dicky (Christian Bale) is a wired, punch-drunk exclamation point of enthusiasm; he’s also entirely irresponsible, often AWOL and hooked on crack. Micky’s manager/mom (Melissa Leo) is a chain-smoking harridan who runs her Irish-American family as a close-knit tribe in a hostile country, wielding the stick of guilt to ensure compliance. The beer-swilling, trash-talking cackle of Micky’s seven sisters suggests the witches from Macbeth in bluejeans and T-shirts. Their presence is a form of comic relief, even when they have nothing to say.

The challenge for Micky, the protagonist, is not so much knocking out the next opponent, but his family. They provided him with the background and training to be a contender and repeatedly brought him to the edge of success, only to screw it up. Outsiders, the dreaded wolves of mom’s imagination, are making Micky an offer that could spell Vegas and the world championship, and Charlene encourages him to leave his loser relatives behind. Can Micky’s answer be a simple yes or no, a choice between family and pushing ahead with his own life, or can he find a way to win with the various cards he’s been handed? At one point Micky compares boxing to chess, but maybe life as well as boxing is more like poker.n
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