Based on the true story of boxer “Irish” Micky Ward’s unlikely rise to the title — at a late age, after a career full of setbacks, with the millstone of an ex-fighter crack-addict half-brother dragging him down — “The Fighter” would, at any other time of the year, be a pretty good movie. Released in the month of December, though, it is an Oscar contender — not just a film — and, as such, it can only be viewed through that distorting golden lens. Christian Bale’s work as Ward’s half-brother Dickie Eklund — life and body wasted by crack and addiction — would, in the first three quarters of the year, be a showy diversion from the man who normally plays Bruce Wayne. Mark Wahlberg’s roles as star and producer would, outside of this time, be seen as a star pushing on a passion project, and not as the kind of willful drive that must be taken seriously by the Academy.
And “The Fighter” is, in the end, pretty good — the kind of film where the accumulation of a thousand clichés becomes more welcoming than distancing; the kind of film where the stylistic directorial touches are enough to enliven the material but not enough to bend it from its predetermined course as our hero rises, against resistance, to triumph. Originally slated to be directed by Darren Aronofsky (and, bluntly, good call, Mr. “Black Swan”), “The Fighter” is directed by David O. Russell, whose films, like “Three Kings” and “I Heart Huckabees,” may not be perfect, but are unabashedly his. And watching Russell pour his talents into the concrete container of a rags-to-riches, guts-to-glory narrative like “The Fighter” is like watching Jackson Pollock paint your living room eggshell white with a roller.
Even so, Russell makes some smart choices — like hiring HBO’s fight camera team to shoot the matches, shooting them to look not like recycled “Raging Bull,” but, rather, in a way that speaks to our collective cultural memory of how we perceive boxing in the here-and-now. Casting Amy Adams as Ward’s sweetheart also helps. Adams, freed from playing princesses and light rom-com material, shows an impressive amount of steel behind her charm and relishes the chance to get a little more immediate than her normally ethereal image.
As for Wahlberg, he’s worked with Russell before, and the director knows that Wahlberg is, at heart, a passive actor — things do not happen because of his characters on-screen, but, rather, around his characters, whether it’s running from killer plants or being chauffeured through the ’70s porn industry. (Every time Wahlberg tries to play an action hero — “Shooter,” “Max Payne,” “Planet of the Apes” — those films fail precisely because of that quality, and one would think he, or his agents, would realize it.) In “The Fighter,” Micky must choose between his venal mother (Melissa Leo) as a manager and the strung-out Dickie (Bale) as his trainer, fighting in the low-rent margins of the sport or the backing of better-funded, better-connected interests who can get him on the path to the title but refuse to work with his crazy family. It’s worth noting that the movie and Wahlberg wring two hours of film out of a real-life process of agonizing over a decision most of the audience will imagine themselves capable of having made in less than 30 seconds.
But the fights are well-shot and innovative. Wahlberg and Adams’ romance has no small amount of realism and charm. Bale’s performance is at its best not in gaunt, showy moments but in quieter arcs, like when Dickie, followed by an HBO film crew, tells everyone they’re making a movie about his comeback. We are then told that they’re actually making a documentary about crack in America. Dickie’s lies — to others, to himself — crumble in a matter of moments, and Bale makes that hurt.
“The Fighter” is at its most interesting as a comeback story about people who’ve seen too many comeback stories — Dickie, Micky, the whole family — and can’t quite wrap their heads around the gap between messy reality and the movie-fed visions that sports and cinema have fed them. Fitzgerald famously said there are no second acts in American lives, but in our age, and in “The Fighter,” there are second acts in American lives — as long as someone gets to sell tickets or take a cut. Exploring that idea more, with toughness, might have made “The Fighter” a truly Oscar-worthy film instead of merely an Oscar contender.