Friday, 4 February 2011

'The Fighter' review:

It is easy to dismiss David O. Russell's boxing biopic 'The Fighter' as riddled with sports movie clichés. It's the story of an ageing boxer working towards his last shot after years of wasting his potential. Sounds more than a little like 'Rocky'. In fact, based on the original trailer, it seemed that the film was more than a little similar to Darren Aronofsky's 2008 film 'The Wrestler' too, with a similar grainy, documentary aesthetic and with Amy Adams replacing Marisa Tomei as the sexy "white trash" confidant of the fighter pushing himself to the physical limit. Seeing Aronofsky's name attached to the film as an executive producer did little to allay this fear that 'The Fighter' would be nothing more than a derivative (and probably inferior) version of a story we've all seen a thousand times before.

Happily this prejudice, whilst not completely unfounded, only tells part of the story: 'The Fighter', it turns out, is a terrifically good film. It can't escape the trappings of the genre narratively or formally (as felt keenest in the obligatory training montage), but the acting is of such a high standard that you overlook its minor trespasses and enjoy what is an entirely entertaining yarn. The film follows the true story of welterweight boxer "Irish" Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and we witness the highs and lows of his relationship with his older half-brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), a drug-addicted former pro and Micky's trainer. It is the web of relationships between Micky, his brother, his mother (Melissa Leo) and his girlfriend (Adams) that is the focus of this drama, which spends comparatively little time in the boxing ring.

This is probably a wise decision as it is outside of the ring that the interest lies as we see Ward pulled between the different forces in his life who all project their hopes and aspirations on the meek and sensitive brawler. Wahlberg is superb in the main role, playing a character so painfully reluctant to express himself or fight his own corner, but the more obvious show-stopper is Bale. Christian Bale not only took himself to the physical limit to embody the part, again losing a lot of weight as he had for roles in 'Rescue Dawn' and 'The Machinist', but he completely loses himself in the character. At times he could seem close to going too far, but he never does and the film's most tragic, poignant moments of emotional honesty fall to him - none more effecting than his realisation that he no longer his brother's idol.

Melissa Leo is also impressive as a terrifying matriarch who holds an uncomfortable sway over her nine adult children and who transparently favours her eldest son - the town hero due to his former glory. The film doesn't judge its characters, all of whom are varying degrees of messed up, but if anything it gives Leo's character an easy ride. She assaults her husband in an act of domestic abuse that is played as slightly comic - in a way that would be unthinkable were roles reversed - and there is more than a suggestion that she is willing to put Micky in harms way if she can make money from it (it appears that Micky's bouts pay for his mother's upkeep) though she is never held to account for that, or even shown to be especially apologetic. Yet Leo imbues the role with flashes of vulnerability - or at least self-delusion - to ensure that she is much more than just a monster.

Amy Adams, as Micky's girlfriend, is equally brilliant in the opposite regard. Her character Charlene is for most of the film a positive counterpoint to Micky's possessive family: she helps him to break away from them and act in his own interests. Yet there is more than a hint in Adams' performance - and in the film's screenplay - that she is potentially just as damaging and manipulative a force in his life. The relationship drama at the heart of this movie isn't about good and bad or right and wrong, but about reconciliation between both sides. Micky, in eventually asserting himself, tries to bring everybody together rather than abandon his family for Charlene or go it alone - a more emotionally mature and complex resolution than we are used to seeing, though it may spring more from the fact that the film is based on real life events than the ingenuity of the writers.

The writers do deserve a lot of credit though, as there are some smart and funny lines in the film. Such as when Eklund tries to con a family of Cambodians with a pyramid scheme and is defended against the charge of racism by a friend who says, assures them that "white people do over white people all the time". There is a really nice and subtle exchange between Micky and Charlene too after he picks up on her talking about a former roommate by saying "the army?" before she corrects him with "college" - the idea that someone from his poor neighborhood could go to college being so unexpected. It's a piece of social commentary in a film that makes a feature of America's oft-derided white poor whilst never becoming mawkish or condescending.

'The Fighter' warrants its Oscar nominations, though it justly only stands a chance at winning in the supporting actor categories, where Bale and Leo are surely favourites to win. It is a fairly generic film enlivened by its committed cast, but in some ways that is its principle joy: it is a straightforward, comforting underdog story during which you'll want to punch your fist into the air and cheer on the hero.

'The Fighter' is out now in the UK and has been certified '12A' by the BBFC.

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