Everyone loves a comeback story, especially in Oscar season, and that of the American boxer, a working class guy with busted knuckles and bruised cheekbones, is a classic. What makes David O. Russell's 'The Fighter' stand out -- or at least stand shoulder to shoulder -- with other boxing movies is its real-life subject, "Irish" Micky Ward, and its incredibly strong cast, led by Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Melissa Leo and Amy Adams.
'The Fighter' is set in the '90s before Ward went pro; a boxer from the working class Boston suburb of Lowell, MA, Micky (Wahlberg) spends years being pummeled in the amateurs while being trained by his half brother, Dicky Eklund, and managed by their chain-smoking mother, Alice. Dicky (Bale) and Alice (Leo) can't let go of Dicky's former glory as a boxer who knocked out Sugar Ray Leonard, despite his ravaging crack addiction and consistent disregard for his brother's career and safety.
The last straw is when Micky ends up fighting a boxer 15 pounds heavier than him in a bout that could have had him down for way more than 12 rounds. The humiliation of his loss, his budding romance with Charlene (Adams), and support from his dad and Ward's real life friend and trainer Mickey O'Keefe (played by himself) helps Micky decide to ditch this toxic situation and find his own way to golden gloved success. Of course, it's never that simple when it comes to family, is it? Especially not when your big brother taught you everything you know, especially that good old "head body head body" move that does end up being the winning combo.
Although Wahlberg's performance is the most subdued of them all, he's the most instrumental part of the movie. It's not just that he's the star or even that he's been training for years to stay in shape for the role, but as a producer and longtime Micky Ward fan, he's been almost singlehandedly keeping the project alive. While Ward himself is dominated by his brother and mother and pack of beery, wild-haired sisters, Wahlberg's performance is mostly overwhelmed by the chatter around him. As for Bale, this is the type of role he thrives on; withered down to the bone, with a bald spot shaved in the back of his head, his teeth seemingly rotted from years of drug abuse, he's jackrabbit quick and twitchy. Sure, at this point most of it is the crack, but in a later scene when a sober Dicky is drilling Micky on the pads, the rhythm that they strike up is elegant and quiet and shows the prowess that still lurks inside Dicky's broken body.
This is not to say that Wahlberg and Bale own the movie completely. Melissa Leo and her fantastically teased and bleached hair is a matriarch to be reckoned with; she hustles young Micky from crappy bout to crappy bout and remains blindly devoted to Dicky, despite how painfully ludicrous his addiction makes him. (An especially heart-rending subplot involves a documentary HBO is making about Dicky that he says is about his comeback.)
On the other end is Amy Adams, who is not above throwing some punches of her own when it comes to Micky's endless parade of trash-talking sisters or dishing it right back to Alice, who sees her as a someone coming to take Micky away from her. It's also funny in very random moments, like when Dicky turns to a passerby who's gawking at his argument with Charlene and says, "Hey, what kind of dog is that? Is that a cocker spaniel?" Or when Micky takes Charlene to see 'Belle Epoque' in nearby Lexington and a snooty glasses-wearing film nerd (hey!) tells them it got a great review in the Times.
However, the last third of 'The Fighter' has a weird happy Hollywood feel to it that seems off, especially for a director like Russell. Perhaps it's because the story passed through so many hands until it made its way onto the screen, but surely such sturm und drang doesn't just get a tidy little ending where everyone gets what they want, does it? There is just a hint of what the truth is behind Dicky and Micky's continuing relationship beyond the teary-eyed coda, and that's the footage of the pair as the credits roll. Even today, the real-life Dicky seems to be talking over (even when it's about) his quieter younger brother, the now-retired but legendary "Irish" Micky Ward.