Mark Wahlberg’s journey to the top has been unique to say the least. From Boston tough guy rapper turned underwear model, to an outstanding film arrival in Paul Thomas Anderson’s memorable and poignant Boogie Nights (1997), to becoming the driving force behind the HBO hit series Entourage, the actor has worked steadily and impressively for nearly two decades. And yet, my criticism of his work is usually that his stoic, semi-soft disposition prevents me from enlisting fully in his battles.
That criticism will now be put to rest. Little Marky Mark has left the Funky Bunch and the Calvins once and for all and delivered one helluva performance in The Fighter, for my money not only the best “boxing” film ever made, but one of the finest films to come along in the last twenty years.
Based on the true story of boxing brothers Micky Ward and Dickie Ecklund, The Fighter (directed by David O. Russell) opens in 1993, Lowell, Massachusetts, with an HBO film crew interview. ‘Micky’ (Wahlberg) and ‘Dickie’ (Christian Bale) sit side by side on a ratty sofa talking about their glorious past. Or, at least ‘Dickie’s’ glorious past. In particular his shining moment in 1978 when he knocked down the one and only Sugar Ray Leonard in a random middle weight fight. Random to the rest of the sporting world, that is. But not to ‘Dickie’ and his family – and all of Lowell, Mass.
The only problem is that ‘Dickie’ never lived up to the promise shown in that singular moment. A moment that is even questioned repeatedly throughout the film. Did he knock Leonard down or did the champ merely slip?
And then there’s his addiction to crack combined with his suffocating and repulsively doting mother, ‘Alice’ (superb Melissa Leo), and her swarm of sycophant daughters who leach off the former boxer’s fading ability to manage his younger brother’s career. What a mess!
Until ‘Micky’ meets ‘Charlene,’ that is, and brings some purity into his contaminated community pool.
Amy Adams plays the tough, street-wise bartender ‘Charlene,’ and pulls it off with such grace and ease it’s almost hard to fathom that the same actress that was so perfectly cast as the Disney Princess come to life in the squeaky clean Enchanted (2007) and the blogging food lover in Julie & Julia (2009) could grapple with this unsavory bunch.
After ‘Dickie’ and ‘Alice’ talk ‘Micky’ into a Las Vegas fight against some bum who “just got off the couch” – but then proceeds to pummel the lighter boxer – he knows it’s time to get out from under their tattered umbrella and see if a better career path awaits him.
This is where the heart of The Fighter lives. The power and motivation gained from unconditional support, often from family, but not always. There is a moment early on in the courting phase of ‘Micky’ and ‘Charlene’ after she has been stood up, when she looks at him with such sweetness and empathy and says “So, we gonna see that dinner and a movie, or what?”
Be still my beating heart.
It’s a simple moment in a complicated film about loyalty and allegiances. Much of the conflict also centers around drug addiction and the havoc it wreaks on people’s lives, and the ones who love them. Christian Bale’s portrayal of the tragic complexities of a heroe’s fall from grace is world-class and might just win the British actor his first Oscar. Melissa Leo is equally on target in her examination of the pathetic dependency that results too often when a single family member rises to become not only the sole source of revenue but the focus of all love and adoration.
But it is Wahlberg who ties it all together, ultimately. His calm, yet conflicted presence counter balances the extremely dramatic performances given by his co-stars. Credit director David O. Russell for assembling this brilliant cast (including veteran character actor Jack McGee who plays the boys’ stepfather) and keeping them on the same page to tell this wonderfully uplifting story.
The Fighter works from beginning to end. The boxing scenes are very authentic, looking exactly like what you might see on ESPN or HBO. For a sport so inherently dramatic and full of cinematic potential, it so often comes off inauthentic and poorly staged. Not here.
This is an exceptional film that uses boxing as metaphor with savvy and smarts.