The primal thrill of great boxing movies - Body and Soul and The Set-Up, Rocky and Raging Bull, Million Dollar Baby and Somebody Up There Likes Me - cannot be denied. Brute force and finesse in the ring - angst and melodrama, ambition and heartbreak outside.
David O. Russell's The Fighter, based on the story of real-life welterweight champ "Irish" Micky Ward and his wacko half-brother, erstwhile prizefighter Dicky Eklund, can now be added to the ranks. A storm-tossed tale of family - a feisty, domineering mother; a weak father figure; a chorus of gum-smacking, catcalling sisters - and the pursuit of a dream, The Fighter is funny, ferocious, sad, sweet, pulpy, and violent. Sometimes, all in the same minute.
It's rich business, and it gives Mark Wahlberg (as Micky), Christian Bale (as Dicky), Melissa Leo (in big hair, as their mother, Alice), and Amy Adams (Charlene, Micky's barkeep girlfriend) the chance to dive deep into a colorful, hardscrabble world. Working on a road-paving crew in hometown Lowell, Mass., one day, riding a limo to an Atlantic City arena the next.
Russell has a knack for the nutty. Three Kings (also with Wahlberg) was an anarchic war-zone heist pic, Flirting With Disaster a loopy screwball saga, I Huckabees a weird existential romp. And while there are laughs here (lots - but I love Adams' Charlene wisecracking on Micky's choice of a date-night movie, a subtitled Luis Buñuel pic!), the director proves impressively adept at staging and shooting the fights. With a tip of the gloves to Scorsese and Raging Bull, Russell delivers the punches in a series of brutal bouts.
Ward, in his epic stands against the likes of Alfonso Sanchez and Arturo Gatti, withstood pummeling upon pummeling - it was Dicky's strategy to have his brother wear opponents down by letting them beat him up for a half-dozen rounds, and then come back and deal the mighty blow.
Russell and his cinematographer, Hoyte Van Hoytema (the Swedish teen vampire romance Let the Right One In), record the thunderous punches and rib-crunching clashes with an authenticity that's visceral, jolting. This is the kind of role that Wahlberg excels at - stoic, sturdy, focused - and he's formidable. You feel for the guy.
And Bale, as Dicky, whose glory days are gone and who's now battling with addiction issues, gives another of his scary-real performances. Hopped up, sunken-eyed, and scrawny, Dicky is a wreck, and he's wrecking his brother's career. (Dicky is the crackhead ghost of Terry Malloy - he coulda been a contender.) Bloodlines and bad blood, bonds and betrayal - it's all here. The family conflicts are as messy and intense as the slugfests in the ring.
The mugs on the actors orbiting Wahlberg, Bale, Adams, and Leo - the women Russell lined up to play the sisters, the guys in the gym, the crack-den denizens - are chiseled and crooked and about as unglamorous as Hollywood gets. Diane Arbus could have been the casting director. The Fighter is pug-ugly, and proud.