Saturday, December 18, 2010

Winner By Decision, Not by Knock-Out -- Reflections on "The Fighter" (2010)

Even Wahlberg realizes everything outside the ring is more interesting and than what's inside.
In one of the rawest moments of David O. Russell's film, The Fighter, Dicky Ecklund (Christian Bale) confronts Charlene (Amy Adams), his brother Micky's (Mark Wahlberg) girlfriend, after she decides to walk away from supporting his brother's efforts to train for a world middleweight boxing title. Charlene, you see, did this because Dicky, a former boxing sensation and crack addict, just got out of jail and wanted back in on his brother's training team, something Charlene was adamantly opposed to. Yet, Dicky, finally clean and sober, knows that Micky needs both Charlene and himself in the corner during that championship bout.

"What have you ever done with your life?" Dicky asks her.

It's a profound moment for a movie that is often good, but never great. The Fighter, like its hero, Micky Ward, is a scrappy movie that fights against sports movie cliches, and barely comes out a winner. It is rescued by a few amazing performances, while almost simultaneously being destroyed by a pedestrian plot.

Here's the basics: Micky Ward is a down-and-out boxer, a stepping stone for other boxers on the rise, living in his brother's shadow in the tight-knit community of Lowell, Massachusettes. His brother, Dicky, once fought against the great Sugar Ray Leonard and, according to legend, knocked him down. Whether he did, or whether the champ slipped, isn't really important. What's important is that Micky believes Dicky knocked Sugar Ray down.

Micky's life is seemingly run by his family. Dicky is his trainer and his mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), is his manager. They don't seem to be able to get him very good fights, putting their own reputations before his own. Alice is more interested in maintaining her matriarchal power than in doing right by her boxing boy. She's one of those parents for whom guilt and false loyalty are a major currency in conversation with her children.

Dicky, meanwhile, has his own issues. He's a full-fledged crack addict, spending a lot of his time at a house on the bad side of Lowell, getting high with friends and re-living his glory moment over and over. In addition, he's being followed by a documentary film crew. They are from HBO, filming him as a subject for a documentary about crack addiction; Dicky believes they are filming his comeback attempt. It's a sad irony that has a great character payoff later in the film.

On night, at a local bar, Micky meets Charlene, and falls in love. She's a tough, feisty young woman with college experience and a Boston attitude. When he stands her up on a date, ashamed to take her out after losing another match, she's at his front door, banging it down and demanding an explanation. She's the only voice of reason in his life, but it's not unreasonable to believe she's not all that different than Dicky or Alice as she tells Micky what to do to salvage his career. We just forgive her because she happens to be more objective, and lot more right.

With Charlene in his corner, Micky begins changing the people around him, pissing off his family, who prefer loyalty to success. Despite the personal conflicts that come, Micky turns his career around, becomes a boxing sensation, and gets his chance to be a contender. We've been here before, maybe a few to many times. I recognize that boxing films are predicated on the understanding we're going to watch a nobody become a somebody, but if that is the case, then the writers have to work harder to give us a greater reason to root for our hero. I was never fully engaged in Micky's quest for a title because all he was fighting for were the same reasons everyone fights for -- money, glory, and to help his family. These are not bad things, but they are so typical that as a character, Micky often feels like a background character in his own movie. The dynamic supporting characters feel more important and interesting, especially Dicky, who is the only character with an arc that leads him down a path to redemption. Boxing movies are about redemption, and it's odd that the main character's actions are used as redemption for others, but not for himself.
Nonetheless, it is the characters, Dicky, Alice and Charlene who make The Fighter a good movie. Each actor's performance is stellar, deep, and insightful. Each character could have been a cartoon, but Bale, Leo and Adams treat them like sensitive human beings whom we can both love and hate. Wahlberg, as the passive-aggressive Micky, does his best, but never stirs our emotions much. You like him and want him to do well, but in the end, he's not as interesting as those surrounding him.

And that, I think, perfectly describes The Fighter. It's a winner by decision, not by knock-out, and those are never as much fun to watch.

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