Thursday, December 9, 2010

David O. Russell's THE FIGHTER

"How you like me now?" (song from opening of the movie)

Most people will note that The Fighter, based on the real-life up-from-the-bottom story of "Irish" Mickey ward, the boxer who had some spectacular fights, has a resemblance to Rocky. That film, too, had an underdog who came up out of nothing to if nothing else be a contender.  This film has that, but I couldn't help but also think of The Wrestler (in some part due to Darren Aronofsky, that film's director, also executive producer here and the original director for The Fighter). Really just in its tone perhaps; this has a similar dark and depressing story to tell, and David O. Russell really harnesses on the similarity to The Wrestler, of it being as much about family in the scope of the glory of the sport one is in, while finding his own voice in the material. It's been a while since Russell has had a full on dramedy of this sort (maybe his first film, Spanking the Monkey, had a similar aspect of the dire strait between sons and mothers). Thankfully, he's hit his stride here in a big way.

Maybe also, like the Wrestler, one of Russell's wisest achievements is to let it be more of his actors' movie than anything else. This is always a good choice when one has good players to work with, and here
there is one good one (Mark Wahlberg), one better one (Amy Adams), one who astonishes in a surprising "who is she? no way!" kind of performance (Melissa Leo), and one who tops them all (Christian Bale).  In this story Mickey Ward is the underdog almost by default of the family hierarchy, at least on the surface: his brother, Dick Eklund (Bale) is the guy who was a huge-big-time boxer - he knocked out Sugar Ray Leonard as we're told many times by his family as a point of pride with them and the town they live in, Lowell, Mass - and yet he's now a crackhead, full-time, with some time given to training his brother.  Mickey is fine with the  training, even with his mother/sisters mob-like control over his career. That is until he is offered another shot, a big one, and actual training.

Some of the Rocky comparisons may be a little more obvious in some spots. The love interest is certainly there as one point, although I found Amy Adams' Charlene a tougher 'broad' (so to speak) than someone
like Adrian; different levels of strength, perhaps, though one can stand up to the Ward clan and one probably couldn't. That side of the story, matter of fact a lot of the story, is probably conventional to a degree. The protagonist has to overcome odds that seem insurmountable.  The Fighter is distinguished by the flavor of Russell's direction of the actors, the flavor of the low-rent town of Lowell, and how he very likely, as he had in previous projects, infused improvisation into the material. The actors feel very real and raw even under some scenes and circumstances that could have been out of a B- movie. There's not one character that isn't given a level of depth and heart and pain and agony to work with, even a minor character like Mickey's father played by Jack McGee.

Not Jack McGhee.  More like "Um... Nice lady!"
I can't say what will appeal to audiences, either looking for a mainstream drama (Rocky 1) or something a little more "art-house" like something of The Wrestler. For myself it was a fusing of Russell's best
talents at giving actors room to breathe, letting them own the characters completely and wholly (though with Bale is there any other way?) and for his camera to be part of that action. I liked how he would let things track along with characters, or to stay put to heighten the drama like when characters in various locations are watching the documentary that airs on TV - not about Dickie's comeback but about crack-heads in America. It may also seem deceptive with the direction, that it's not the in-your-face style of Three Kings or I Heart  Huckabees. Maybe Russell is taking a cue from Ward himself, the 'Rope- a-Dope' method.

But however good the direction is (and save for some of the shots in the boxing scenes, almost but not quite ruined by the switch to HD from film just for these scenes, it is), it's the actors' movie all through.  And really, I can't go through talking about The Fighter without mentioning Bale. This time Bale is back to the skeleton-man figure he's dropped to when he made The Machinist and again to a slightly lessor extent for Rescue Dawn (and, once again, he'll gain it all back for Batman, but I digress). It's the kind of performance that would be dubbed "Oscar bait" by some laymans, and he might even win. He's completely immersed in a character who is by turns charming, funny, crazy, nasty, stupid, sympathetic, and awful. I never doubted him for a second that he could be as bad as he was, or later that he could possibly redeem himself. And yet Bale brings to the character a frightening sense of doubt that is palpable: this guy could crack any moment, any second, even when he is sober. Or he could achieve what is possible. He's the tragic figure that practically steals the show.

But less not forget Melissa Leo, also disappearing into this tyrannical mother figure who is the type to kill souls with the one statement: "I'm his MOTHER!" I wish I would say more kinder things about Wahlberg, but he's basically good at just being.. well, maybe himself, I'm not sure. Maybe Ward was like this, however unlike the other players I didn't see him quite transform himself past other dramatic parts he's done save for the excess body muscle. He's still a commanding figure, just not quite like the rest of the supporting cast. Among dramatic ensembles this year it is one of the finest and most emotionally touching. It's more of a story of family than boxing, and the ties that bind and break, and in that sense it's amazing. If you're going just for the blows  you might not quite get what you expected. Hopefully that's a good thing.

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