Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Fighter: A knock-out

The Fighter (2010) • View trailer for The Fighter
Five stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, drug use, boxing violence and sensuality
By Derrick Bang

The opening image is startling: a slice of documentary-verite with two men on a couch. We recognize the actor at left; it’s definitely Mark Wahlberg. But the guy at right ... we know, from the poster outside the theater, that Wahlberg’s co-star is Christian Bale. But this can’t be Bale ... not this gaunt, wild-eyed, tousle-haired, hyperactive crack addict. Not possible.

Indeed, possible.
While local cop Mickey O'Keefe (left) looks on with unconcealed dismay,
Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale, right) once again attempts to take far too much
credit for any of his half-brother Micky Ward's (Mark Wahlberg) success.

Bale has an infamous reputation as a control freak and method perfectionist; he quite notoriously dropped 63 pounds – sliding down to a health-threatening 110 – in order to bring additional credibility to his portrayal of the emaciated title character in 2004’s The Machinist. (The film tanked, but Bale’s performance certainly wasn’t the reason.)

In The Fighter, Bale once again has drunk deep from the well of physical verisimilitude, for his role as one-time Massachusetts boxing prospect Dicky Eklund: a small-town scrabbler whose shining hour was a toe-to-toe bout with Sugar Ray Leonard.

But that was years ago. As The Fighter opens, Dicky is ostensibly “training” younger half-brother Micky Ward (Wahlberg), mostly as a means of maintaining his own cachet in the blue-collar community of Lowell, which ferociously nourishes its local heroes. But Dicky’s off-ringside behavior has become too much even for Lowell’s loyalty; when not being arrested for various minor crimes, the one-time contender holes up in a dilapidated crack house with a motley collection of substance-abusing losers barely able to stand ... or even string three words into a short sentence.

Dicky is so far gone that he fails to perceive the actual significance of the documentary crew that has been recording his every move, along with a sidebar focus on Micky. Dicky believes he’s the subject of a rags-to-riches-to-redemption puff piece, when in fact the HBO crew is working on an episode of its American Undercover series: “High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell.”

Director David O. Russell – who helms The Fighter – has a spotty cinematic track record, and seems an odd choice for this biographical portrait. The indie darling attracted attention with Spanking the Monkey (1994) and Flirting with Disaster (1996), then cemented his rep with the highly eccentric but undeniably fascinating Three Kings (1999), a war film just as notorious for its on-set clashes between the director and star George Clooney.

Then, to outward appearances, Russell succumbed to the pitfall of believing his own enthusiastic media notices; he subsequently took five years to make his next film, 2004’s abysmal I [Heart] Huckabees. Russell seemed to have channeled the similarly eccentric Wes Anderson (The Royal Tennenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) with that one, and frankly the world doesn’t need more than one Wes Anderson.

Then, a game-changer: Here we are, six long years later, and Russell has unveiled The Fighter ... a powerful, impeccably acted, sharply written true-life saga that frequently defies belief. As the saying goes, truth really is stranger than fiction; in a novel, nobody would believe the course charted by these characters.

For the most part, Russell avoids the directorial twitches and hiccups that pushed and eventually punctured the stylistic envelope in his two previous films. I stress “for the most part,” because the first 10 minutes of The Fighter seem like more of the usual Russell nonsense: herky-jerky camera work, disconnected scenes, no continuity or reference points to get us into the story. It’s a brief, eye-rolling slog that may have viewers gauging the distance to the exits, but hold tight: There’s a method to Russell’s madness. He soon gets out of his own way, in order to let this thoroughly absorbing saga unfold.

The time is the early 1990s, just as Micky has lost another fight – thanks to Dicky’s ineffectual training and equally questionable “management” by their domineering mother, Alice (Melissa Leo, very recently seen as the cop who arrests Hilary Swank’s brother in Conviction) – this time because of being hopelessly out-matched. He’s discouraged, embarrassed and conflicted: wholly unable to sort the complicated feelings for Dicky and the rest of his extended family.

Ah, yes: Micky’s family.

Alice has brought nine children into the world with various male companions. Micky and Dicky are her only two sons; her seven grown daughters, all apparently single, still live with their mother and her current husband, George Ward (Jack McGee, wholly credible as an absolute saint). This motley crew puts the “dys” in family dysfunction; they’re alternately hilarious and horrifying, the skanky daughters every bit as useless as the drug addicts with whom Dicky hangs out (and that comparison certainly isn’t accidental). Indeed, his companions have the advantage of gentle natures, whereas Alice’s daughters are mean-spirited, foul-mouthed white trash of the worst order.

Alice rides herd on this brood like a drill sergeant, her every whim or suggestion expected to carry the force of law. When challenged on any level, she retreats behind the mantra of “loyalty to family,” which she always expects will terminate any dissent. And it has, even with Micky ... at least until now.

Leo was unpleasantly memorable in her small role in Conviction; she’s front-and-center striking here. She makes Alice a chain-smoking, emotionally abusive shrike: a manipulative monster who makes the most aggressive stage mother look passive. Small wonder Micky can’t sort out his own feelings.

Rescue comes in the form of love, of course – how could it not? – when Micky meets and begins a relationship with Charlene (Amy Adams), a feisty, street-smart bartender who isn’t willing to back down to Alice or any of her new lover’s many half-sisters.

It has become obvious that Adams can play any character in any genre, from light-hearted romantic comedy to loopy indie burlesque and now tough-as-nails drama. (Actually, we’ve already seen this side of Adams, in her Oscar-nominated performance in Junebug.) Having already squandered some of her own opportunities, Charlene isn’t willing to waste time on Micky unless he’s the real deal, and that means standing up to his extended family and reclaiming some of his pride. That said, Charlene will be in his corner if he can do that, and Adams leaves no doubt that this gal is more than a match for Alice, Dicky and anybody else attempting to mess with her guy.

That includes the septet of half-sisters, who immediately hate Charlene because (God forbid) she actually attended college for awhile, thus demonstrating that “she thinks she’s better than the rest of us.” (She does. She is. Needless to say.)

These are all engaging, compelling and superbly nuanced performances. The resulting ensemble drama is riveting for all its clashes, in and out of the ring. Russell balances all these spinning plates, never allowing his film to be dominated by any one of these scene-stealing performers. The tone constantly shifts as well, from hilarious sight gags – Dicky constantly trying to escape being caught in the crack house by jumping out a second-floor window into a trash heap below, where his mother or Micky invariably awaits – to understated yet heartbreaking pathos, as when Dicky’s devoted young son (God, this cretin produced a child???) lovingly imitates one of his father’s many temper tantrums.

Somehow, Russell makes it all work: We can only credit natural talent and the magicalje ne said quoi that transforms a mere movie into a work of art.

Bale has the flashy, can’t-take-our-eyes-off him role, but Wahlberg adds to his respectable body of work with his quieter, deeply layered handling of Micky. Because of Micky’s long-repressed nature, Wahlberg must wear this man’s tortured uncertainly on his face, and the set of his body; this isn’t a guy who can articulate his feelings. And the few times he does, generally with Charlene, the results are extremely poignant; take note of the aftermath of Micky’s first date with Charlene, when he haltingly explains why they drove to another town to see a highbrow art film (Belle Epoque, which neither can pronounce) that, to quote Charlene, “doesn’t even have any good sex.”

The training and boxing sequences feel sharp and absolutely authentic, no surprise when considering all the time Wahlberg spent with the real-life Micky and Dicky. Then, too, Russell further juices his film’s authenticity with a bit of stunt casting: Mickey O’Keefe, a Lowell police sergeant who trained Micky – and clashed with Dicky – in real life, portrays himself. O’Keefe remains on the Lowell force to this day, but clearly can embrace an acting career should he decide to retire from law enforcement.

The Fighter feels like a bit of a mess in its first act, a shrewd touch by Russell that echoes the fractured and chaotic family dynamic that imprisons Micky. You’ll likely not perceive any specific transitional scene, but toward the midpoint you’ll suddenly realize that this film has a firm hold on all emotions ... and then, as the amazing, can’t-believe-it-happened-this-way third act kicks into gear, you’ll be at the edge of your chair.

Great stuff. Kudos all around.

Movie magic in every sense of the phrase.

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