Director David O. Russell’s new film, The Fighter, shoots out of the corner full of energy, amped up and in the groove. Driven by the pace and volume of a music video, the opening sequence sets up our entire story and characters: Micky is a boxer who is just looking for that one big shot and Dicky is his older brother who already had his shot and is now living low as a has-been in their small town of Lowell, Masachussets, where they both are local legends. Dicky leads Micky around, prancing and performing for everyone and anyone who will lend him an eye or an ear, especially the HBO camera crew that is documenting his every move for a movie he thinks they are making about his comeback. Jacked up and spirited, The Fighter opens like a firecracker.
As the adrenaline subsides, The Fighter begins to settle in, as Micky, played by Mark Wahlberg, is set up as the good kid from a large lower-class family who carries the burden of being the family’s main breadwinner as an average professional boxer. He is managed by his larger-than-life mother (played by Melissa Leo) and trained by his talented but crack-addicted brother Dicky (Christian Bale). Clearly, Micky’s mother and brother live their lives for Micky’s career, but not always with the best of results. Micky has real potential, but is being held down by his mother’s poor decisions and his brother’s poor behavior. Add to it the influence of Micky’s new girlfriend (Amy Adams), who has her own ideas of how his career should be run, and Micky is left like a spinning bottle, not knowing which way to turn.
Having spent so much energy coming out of the gate, the movie drags a bit in the middle, as it gets uncomfortably close to becoming a seen-it-a-million-times jock drama about a guy who “just needs that shot” and has to overcome everything and everyone to do it—if he only can find a way to believe in himself. Yawn. Even worse, Mark Wahlberg is the key player here, the vessel through which we, the audience, are supposed to travel on this journey of self-discovery and personal empowerment. Well, Mark Wahlberg is nothing more than a place-holder, someone who looks and sounds the part but has absolutely zero charm, personality or life. Thank goodness for the cast that surrounds him (and they do surround him) or else The Fighter would have become The Snoozer.
Not realizing how dizzy we are from the constant body blows, we finally sit up and take notice of what The Fighter has been doing to us from the beginning. Christian Bale’s performance, from the opening bell, has been staggering and once we get our head clear, it is obvious that we are witnessing a performance for the ages. For the third year in a row, there is a single male supporting performance that is so above the rest of the movie, and so above everything else we’ve seen that year, that absolutely knocks your socks off. First Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, then Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds, and now Christian Bale in The Fighter. All three performances were surprising, magnetic and completely untouchable. What Bale does here is transform himself (again) into a manic, deluded loser with such charisma and power that when he is on the screen, he is all you can see and feel—and it will truly make you dizzy.
You just don’t see it coming. Believing that The Fighter has shown you all of its moves, it saves the knockout punch for the end. Micky finally gets his shot, and all indications are that this movie will finish up like every other boxing movie you’ve ever seen. You can see everything coming a mile away—a hard-fought bout, a victory and a feel-good ending. Well, mostly this is true, except for how we get there. Director Russell may not be the most popular guy in Hollywood and Wahlberg may be the furthest thing from the best actor in Hollywood, but what they team up to do in this movie’s final sequence is nothing short of brilliant. Everything up to this point in this movie has been set up for this: Micky’s got one shot at a title, and he’s going to do it, in spite of and because of everyone he’s got in his corner—but from his crazy mother to his crack-head brother to his bull-headed girlfriend, Micky still has to fight the fight alone. So here is where we would expect the usual: the dramatic boxing movie big final fight scene, with dramatic editing, swelling music, and completely manipulative shot selection, designed to heighten the emotions and maximize your desire to shout “come on, you can do it!” at the screen. Yeah, I’ve seen Rocky. And Rocky II, III and IV. But The Fighter is different. Supremely different. The final boxing sequence that David O. Russell delivers is absolutely riveting, naturalistic and unromantic. Instead of swelling music, you hear punches, body blows and the crowd. Unlike other boxing movies I’ve seen, you actually see punches being thrown and landing. There’s no other way to say it other than you feel as if you are actually in the ring and are watching a real fight. Not only a fight, but a story. No matter if you know how it ends, the telling of that story is a magnificent piece of filmmaking. No matter how you feel about the sport, Russell makes this boxing match beautiful, raw and visceral. For the first time in any boxing movie I’ve seen, the climactic scene really is the climax of the movie—and the best part. And that’s saying a lot about a movie that contains this performance from Christian Bale, which alone is worth the price of admission.