The Fighter is the definition of a passion project. Actor/producer Mark Wahlberg, formerly of The Funky Bunch and brother of Donnie, has been dying to play the role of his hometown hero, boxer "Irish" Micky Ward for years now. After many false starts and stops with different directors and continuous training over four years, director David O. Russell (Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees) has delivered a great fight picture.
Ultimately, The Fighter plays as somewhat of an unconventional sports biopic even though the narrative and story arc is wholly conventional. The film is more about family drama and the perils of drug addiction in the town of Lowell, Massachusetts than boxing or anything else.
The actual boxing fights are entertaining and compelling, filmed with the same 1990s era Betacams employed by HBO in their boxing coverage at the time. The grainy realism was refreshing in its authenticity. These fights, the small scale scenes in the streets of Lowell, and the usual training montages fit together seamlessly in the construction of a thoughtful family drama.
Mark Wahlberg delivers a nice, restrained performance, balancing the crazy around him as his mother Alice (Melissa Leo) goes crazy dramatic with her need for drama and guilt. She constantly favours Dicky, the apple of her eye, and neglects Micky and his talent. All the performances are electric as Amy Adams (Julie & Julia) puts on a brave and captivating face as the peacekeeper, Micky's girlfriend Charlene who is full of confidence and strength amidst the chaos around her.
The centre piece of the story, however, is Christian Bale (The Dark Knight) and his firestorm performance as the troubled, washed up boxer and half-brother of Micky, Dicky Eklund. Bale is effortlessly charming despite his drugged out state as the attention hogging so-called "Pride of Lowell". In a part previously casted with Matt Damon and Brad Pitt, Bale brings the perfect kind of balance to the complex role.
Dicky is the heart of the picture as Bale pulls out his trusted method acting style to play the gaunt, crack-addled force of nature brother who threatens to tear apart his family. Dicky has all the talent in the world, but lacks the heart and desire of Micky. Another stand out feature is the ensemble of seven big-haired, bleach blonde, chain-smoking actresses who play Micky and Dicky's crazy sisters who inexplicably show up in many extended scenes to do nothing but talk trash and cause trouble for the family.
The care shown for the small details to populate the very distinct world of Lowell is clear. These little deft touches of authenticity are peppered throughout the film and add to the docudrama feel of the boxing drama. Russell and crew capture and execute a refreshingly open, interesting portrait of a loud, abrasive, self-interested family, wrapped around the theatrical narrative and natural drama of boxing. The Fighter is tightly executed, small, but effective dramatic telling of a true story.
At the core of the film are these two boxer brothers struggling to deal with their talents and family. In the end, The Fighter shines on the great performances of its fine cast and the deft, artful direction of David O. Russell.