Wednesday, December 15, 2010

I Love a Good Fight

When I first saw the trailer for The Fighter, the latest collaboration between principal actor and Boston native Mark Wahlberg and director David O. Russell, my first thought was that it didn't seem like a traditional Rocky retread. While certainly hailing from the same genre of "based on a true story" that has littered Wahlberg's career - films such as Perfect Storm, Invincible, and Rock Star - it felt different than what you might expect from those similar titles. This was thanks in part to the local (Lowell, Massachusetts) scenery and gritty, generally dark atmosphere. But the film's biggest coup was probably the performers that flanked Wahlberg in the credits, namely excellent performers Christian Bale and Amy Adams. Lending their talents to Wahlberg's strong showing made the film look like one that could be contending for awards at year's end, and made for one of this year's most anticipated releases.

Yes, let's take boxing lessons from the lightest weight in the room
The Fighter is the story of real-life boxer "Irish" Micky Ward (Wahlberg), who grew up in Lowell in the shadow of his older brother Dicky. Dicky Eklund (Bale) was once a boxer known as "The Pride of Lowell" and whose crowning achievement - and the family's glory - was facing Sugar Ray Robinson and knocking him down in the ring, though he actually lost the match. These days Dicky has degenerated into a crack addict, though he does care about his brother and has trained Micky as a boxer, using everything he has learned. Managed by his hard-nosed mother Alice (Melissa Leo) and supported by his bartender girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams), Micky rebounds from early disappointments, both in his sport and his family relations, to become a respected boxer and eventually en route to an epic championship match.

Okay, so I put extra caffeine in Four Loko... so what?
Though the film took a long time to put together, it seems to have benefited from the extended production time. Since 2003, the film has seen such names as Martin Scorsese, Darren Aronofsky, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon identified with it, but the film doesn't suffer for not having them in the final product. Russell does a great job of establishing locations and shots that can be recognized by the audience at a glance, and manages to get the proper mood of the working class Lowell neighborhood. There's not a lot that's pretty about Lowell, not in it's streets or it's people, and the beauty that Russell manages to convey is in all things subjective to its surroundings. The well-crafted storyline that the film possesses weaves its tale through the people portrayed and their personalities, and not just in the film's major events.

Marky Mark's family scared Adams juuuust a little...
That those people are also such great artists is no small feat either. As the film's lead, Wahlberg does a tremendous job playing the film's blue collar boxer, though truth be told it's hardly a stretch for him. He does immerse himself in the role, however, going so far as to not use a stunt double for his boxing scenes and working out for almost four years leading up to the role to achieve the proper body type. He probably won't win an Oscar for his work (Colin Firth and Ryan Gosling and perhaps even Stephen Dorff will be the likely front-runners in that race) but he certainly has earned at least a dark horse run at the prize, as his commitment to the role cannot be overstated. Bale's addition to the cast is an even bigger reason the film works so perfectly. As the drug-addicted older brother, Bale had to lose a lot of weight for the role, which he's done before, but that's not the reason he's amazing. He effortlessly takes on a Boston accent, but not the standard "pahk ya cah" that so many people initially think of for the region. He comes off as a veteran boxer who knows what he's talking about, and a drug-addled punk who doesn't commit a lot of time to his family or his problems. The reason Bale is so great is that he doesn't merely play the part well. For the purposes of the film he BECOMES Dicky, through and through. It's the kind of performance that makes careers.

Huh, what?? WOAH!!
It's great that in a Hollywood where strong female roles are few and far between you can see two great such roles in this film. Amy Adams, best known for happy, carefree characters plays amazingly against type here as Charlene, a bartender and Wahlberg's romantic interest. Charlene made mistakes early in her life and is trying to make up for them by supporting Micky in his rise to stardom. And Oscar-nominated Melissa Leo is amazing as Micky's churlish mother and manager Alice, who has a cruel tongue but holds family as most important. Both have already been nominated for Golden Globes thanks to their accurate, amazing characters and if either are left out at the Academy Awards it will be well and truly a snub, as the pair are the heart of this film.

Okay, look. It's called "shampoo." Use it once in a while!
The film has a few small issues, mainly pertaining to its boxing scenes. While comparisons to Rocky aren't unjustified, there are no fewer than five different boxing matches referenced in the film, and while a few are focused on, many of those bits are truncated to the point that the viewer would be unable to differentiate between them were it not for the interjecting story scenes. Also, the fights that Ward are best known for, those with Canadian boxer Arturo Gatti, don't take place until after the film's conclusion.  Still, the boxing scenes are well choreographed and researched, and with the exception of the silly close-up camera angles that muddy up some of the shots, are well done. Again, Wahlberg's decision not to use a stunt double makes the scenes more realistic when you can clearly see it's him hitting and getting hit. The film is helped by the fact that there is no true "bad guy" in the film. Sure, Dicky's addiction and Alice's crassness don't help matters, but the villains in this film are much more ingrained in the culture and biases within which the characters exist. Again, a great choice by the director to not artificially install a bad guy to make things more interesting.

Remember, when he hits you in the head, just fall down and curl up. We'll be home by dinner.
Though in the end it does get to be a little schmaltzy and not a little predictable, The Fighter doesn't disappoint as it was easily one of the best films I've seen this year. All the performers deserve credit for their accomplishment, as they were the ones that made it the amazing experience that it was. I was sure The Town was going to be the best locally based film of the year, but The Fighter made me change my mind, placing as the new #4 on my Top Ten. This was a love letter from Wahlberg not only to Micky and Dicky but also the city of Lowell, and if the film gets some awards this season, they will be wholly deserved.

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