While there is a certain formulaic expectation of fight movies, no two are the same, and few are as much about the fight as it is about what makes the fighter fight. We can go from Raging Bull to Rocky to Million Dollar Baby. Last year’s The Fighter, which won multiple Academy Awards, is quite a good one, and calls up a Greek drama, starting with the epic efforts by Mark Wahlberg to get it produced, to the sterling performances of Christian Bale as the quirky crackhead and heroin-tooting brother, Dicky Eklund, and finally the harpy mom, Alice Ward (Melissa Leo).
Dicky and his seven sisters, who serve as the Greek chorus, are Eklunds; only Micky is a Ward. Dicky famously fought Sugar Ray Leonard, who appears in a cameo, and perhaps knocked him down before losing. In the aftermath, Dicky splits his time between a crack house and bar room as a hero to grimy, lower-middle-class Lowell, Massachusetts. The production took years and stumbled through a variety of directors before settling on David O. Russell, who previously worked with Mark Wahlberg on I Heart Huckabees and Three Kings.
Tough Boston haunts are familiar to Wahlberg, and skirting propriety and class are in his roots. He has been criticized for Micky Ward here as a hero without heroism, a void of a character without moral compass against the anti-heroes of his brother Dicky and his mother, who throw him to the wolves. Dicky’s bartender girlfriend, Charlene (Amy Adams) wears midriff-exposing garb as she pulls beers from the tap, sets up shots, and absorbs vulgar stares and comments from the denizens with vacant lives utterly without hopes or heroes.
As with Million Dollar Baby, the fighter’s family is predatory and venal. Christian Bale lost 30 pounds for The Fighter and looks gaunt and jittery as a cocaine fiend; he has temporalis wasting but is still shown running without getting breathless. He remains absorbed with his past, and glories in the memory of his fight with Sugar Ray Leonard -- real or imagined.
The plot is drawn from a true story of the Eklund/Ward half-brothers, including bouts with the now-murdered Arturo Gotti. Dicky’s addiction and ego are not suppressed as he attempts to manage and train his younger brother. His drug-hazed life causes him to be chronically late. His management advice along with his viperous mother, utterly in his thrall, add up to no concern for Micky’s safety and welfare, but play him for the sucker to fund the family of hangers-on.
Charlene steps in as a foil to the malicious family, and sets the ultimatum with his fight managers: we will find you opponents, but you must jettison Mom and Dicky. In attempt to fund an alternative, Dicky schemes to pose as a cop after entrapping would-be johns and then rolling them. When the real cops show up, the ensuing chase leads to Dicky’s arrest and Micky’s hands are broken in the scuffle, threatening both of their futures.
Micky’s career takes a turn upward when he escapes the misguidance and malfeasance of family “help.” Dicky does time, and HBO makes a documentary, originally planned as the story of his comeback, instead shows him as a crack head and prison king pin. The pathos is obvious even to the hardened inmates and hard-hearted family, from the mother and seven harpies, to Micky’s ex, who poisonously wants his daughter Kasie to see the sorry state of her famous uncle Dicky.
David Russell’s direction shines light on the performances of Bales, Leo, and Adams, and keeps Wahlberg’s performance of Micky intentionally muted. The dramas of the fight story, the crack-head brother, and the dysfunctional family play a volley of interests, with Micky making some odd choices that work. The acting is laudable, with Bales’ performance excellent in its depictions of a manipulative drug addict, and Leo’s outstanding failure of deluded matriarchy and self-justification amplified by the Greek chorus of vulgar and vituperative daughters with colorful nick-names and mindless complicity.
There is redemption and resolution in this popular movie that I think has been misunderstood by some. It is directorial strength and personal triumph for Mark Wahlberg to shine the light on the sterling performances, and stand quietly in strength rather than upstage those performances. Mark Wahlberg has journeyed far from his native Massachusetts and his billboard role in Calvin Klein briefs.
The movie’s extras include many locals, and as well as Eklunds undoubtedly getting a pay day on brother Micky but only because of Mark Wahlberg. You will thrill for Micky, and wonder at his blind devotion. See if there is truth and virtue in this passive pugilist who tries to redeem himself, his brother, and the entire family.