Based on the true story of Micky Ward and his half-brother Dicky Eklund of Lowell, Massachusetts, The Fighter is a highly entertaining new movie that is much more than a boxing movie. It’s a story of family, reconciliation, truth telling, and redemption, all Catholic themes. Featuring an excellent cast, The Fighter is easily one of the best movies of the year.
Micky (Mark Wahlberg) is a fighter trying to make it big. His older half-brother Dicky (Christian Bale), a former professional boxer himself, trains Micky and promotes him along with their mother Alice (Melissa Leo). Dicky’s work with Micky is severely hampered by his addiction to crack cocaine. He often misses practices and almost misses a disastrous trip to Atlantic City in which Micky is badly beaten by a man outside his weight class. Humiliated by the beating he takes, Micky returns to Lowell a beaten man. He begins to see a local barmaid Charlene (Amy Adams), who helps Micky retain his self-respect. Meanwhile, Dicky lands in jail for extortion. Micky’s father George, with the help of Charlene, begins to manage him, and Micky starts to win matches again.
While in prison, Dicky goes through rehab and eventually gets clean. Once he is released, he wants to resume managing Micky, whose career he has followed while incarcerated. Charlene and Father forbid Dicky to return to Micky’s corner. However, Micky insists that Dicky be brought back as part of the team along with George and Alice. A tense reconciliation occurs among all parties for the sake of Micky. Charlene also forces Dicky to own up to his big moment in a match with Sugar Ray Leonard.
Director David O. Russell makes good use of the factory city of Lowell, which by the ’90s, had fallen on hard times. Russell films in the streets and houses, bars, and gyms, all to great effect. Like the heroes of other boxing movies from Rocky to Cinderella Man, Micky knows that he fights not only for himself and his family. He fights to give Lowell a reason to cheer. While the fight sequences are well done, relationships are at the heart of the film: Micky’s affection for his brother, his love for Charlene, and his interactions with matriarch Alice and his seven sisters. Both Micky and Dicky’s fathers are present as well in this outrageous family. Alice rules here, and sees Charlene’s influence on Micky as a threat to her authority.
There’s a fine line between tragedy and comedy here, and the screenplay maintains the fine balance. The Ward/Eklund clan could have easily have been caricatures, but the bond among them shines through. The dialogue is very gritty, and I need to note that the profanity is practically non-stop. Let the potential viewer be forewarned.
The greatest pleasure of “The Fighter” is relishing the fine acting by the cast. Wahlberg continues to mature as an actor, and gives Micky heart and determination. As Dicky, Christian Bale gives a tremendous performance. In a physical transformation, Bale looks gaunt, lanky, and balding. He’s a far cry from Bruce Wayne/Batman! Not only is there a physical transformation in Bale, he transforms Dicky from a goofy, irresponsible addict to a man who does the hard work of rehab, facing his own demons. He earns his place back in Micky’s corner. Bale and Wahlberg are wonderful in there many scenes together. At this point, Bale seems a sure bet to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
Melissa Leo is also excellent as the matriarch Alice, who is indeed a force to be reckoned with. Amy Adams also is great playing against type as the tough barmaid who stands her ground with Mama Alice and family, and teaches Mickey self-respect. In addition to Bale, I hope that Leo, Adams, and Wahlberg all receive Oscar nominations.
Certainly “The Fighter” is a boxing movie, ending with a big fight between Mickey and a highly favored opponent. But it’s so much more. Despite the profanity, it’s a very Catholic movie. Not only does Mickey kneel and pray in his corner, but the Catholic themes of family, community, reconciliation, truth telling and redemption are at the heart of The Fighter. No matter who we are, we need our family and community in our corner through life, cheering us on.
Tom Condon, OP