By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Director David O. Russell’s “The Fighter,” an absorbing, powerfully realistic account of light welterweight “Irish” Micky Ward’s trials and tribulations in and out of the ring, is both metaphor and anthropological critic. Pulling no punches, it identifies the vestigial emotions that make this genre such a searing microcosm of the human condition.
Give filmmaker Russell and a gaggle of writers credit for making intense, philosophical sense of a very messy sociology. Welcome to Lowell, Massachusetts, a town that went down for the count after the mills absconded. Struggling to lift itself off the canvas ever since, the profound psychological effect is sternly worn on its denizens’ sleeves.
Nowhere does hope spring more desperately than in the home of Alice Ward (Melissa Leo), the hard drinking, chain smoking mother of nine and self appointed boxing manager. As in every family, the Ward culture is built on an amalgam of legend and myth. In their case, it’s eldest son Dicky Eklund’s could-have-been glory.
Magnificently portrayed with Oscar worthy verve and sensitivity by Christian Bale, he was a decent fighter with good potential before succumbing to drug addiction. In recent years, he has become a tarnished, charitably acknowledged local hero, dining out on the story of how he once knocked down the great Sugar Ray Leonard. Some say he slipped.
In any case, as we take up the tale the torch has now apparently passed to little brother Micky Ward, superbly detailed by Mark Wahlberg. A road paver by day, he’s won several fights. But of late he has stagnated and taken numerous beatings, ostensibly due to the subjective and imprudent judgment of domineering Alice and the fallen Dicky.
A real manager offers him a chance to quit the road gang and train full time in Las Vegas. He yearns for the opportunity. But the family has its hooks in him. And thus we identify the syndrome that plagues the very best and worst of families: the tyranny of the DNA. Do as we say or flaunt your repudiation of family, your selfish betrayal.
Fortunately, history shows there’s long been a fairly successful antidote to the pathology. It’s an ally, forming in its healthiest application a tie stronger than blood, and commonly known as a lover. Enters stage right, Amy Adams in a great turn as Charlene Fleming, a spunky barmaid who’s had a flirtation with college. She seats herself in Micky’s camp.
And what a crew she has to deal with if she hopes to wrest her knight in shining armor from the shackles that deter the shared dream destiny they now envision. Ensconced on Alice’s couch, serving as a chorus to her egocentric reveries, several witchlike daughters provide telling comedy relief, echoing mom’s pontifications to insure their own survival.
We pause to speculate: What is it about the lower classes that so intrigue? Of late, almost a whole showbiz franchise has formed, dedicated to spotlighting the mores and folkways of those who either refuse, or have been unable, to carve out a piece of America’s middle class pie. Witness the bevy of daytime TV shows that delight in making sport of them.
Sadly, that’s slumming, rubbernecking at socioeconomic tragedy. I’d like to think our interest here is primarily sympathetic. Representing the Dickensian aspiration for a finer life, Wahlberg’s Micky Ward is the tale’s Cinderella. He knows there’s something better than the insular barbarism that surrounds him, not just monetarily, but spiritually as well.
Thus, it is essentially an internecine holy war that widens the rift between him and the long held rituals and ethos that have subjugated his clan. Alice preaches the mantra, holding up the besotted, poor, poor Dicky as the martyred symbol of all their beliefs. Hanging from that false cross, Christian Bale performs a thespic miracle to behold.
Commanding yet unselfish, he suffuses the atmosphere with the entire crux of the opus, a symbol of the bones of contention gnawing at the personae’s souls, and screaming their discontent. Knocking heads with him, literally and figuratively, Mr. Wahlberg bobs and weaves, allowing him an intermittent limelight without losing his character’s importance.
But perhaps more phenomenal in this movie of multifariously sought redemptions is the tolerance Bale ultimately engenders in his audience. The idea of heroes and villains soon spins into an enlightening gray area that speaks volumes about the human comedy. Along the way, a good old fashioned look at brotherly love complements the perspective.
The most prestigious, albeit hackneyed, accolade that can be laid on a boxing film is that it isn’t just a ring saga per se, that the dramatic substance supersedes its pugilistic content. In this corner, the combination is symbiotically profound. Throwing a blow to the senses and a shot to the gut, “The Fighter” floors us with its winning one-two punch.
“The Fighter,” rated R, is a Paramount Pictures release directed by David O. Russell and stars Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale and Amy Adams. Running time: 115 minutes
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