A Comeback Story

The Fighter, directed by David O. Russell ’81E and starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale and Amy Adams (Paramount Pictures)

Reviewed by Josh Bell ’02

Mark Wahlberg (left) and Christian Bale in The Fighter. For director David O. Russell, the film is a move away from the quirky and personal and into the realm of mainstream Hollywood.

[Film] David O. Russell landed a 2011 Oscar nomination for directing The Fighter (he lost to Tom Hooper of The King’s Speech), but watching the biopic of boxer Micky Ward and his brother Dicky Eklund, you’d often be hard-pressed to guess that Russell was behind the camera. Known for idiosyncratic, button-pushing satires like Three Kings and Flirting with Disaster, Russell spent six years on unrealized projects before taking on The Fighter, a deliberate move away from the quirky and personal and into the realm of mainstream Hollywood. Anyone who loved Russell’s early work, warts and all, may spend the entirety of The Fighter wondering what happened to his distinctive style. But anyone frustrated by Russell’s previous films—especially I ♥ Huckabees, which led to his years in exile—will find The Fighter a pleasant surprise, an elegant if sometimes stolid drama made with a level of polished craftsmanship that emerged from years of struggle.

That’s not to say that Russell doesn’t bring flashes of inventiveness to the proceedings: The Fighter opens with a disarmingly simple pseudo-documentary sequence, as brothers Micky (Mark Wahlberg) and Dicky (Christian Bale) sit on a couch in what looks like an anonymous hotel room, giving a retrospective interview about the events we’re about to see. Rather than using a myth-building scene of some significant childhood moment, Russell opens the movie by showing the characters having already passed the trials they’re about to endure, thereby adding his signature meta-textuality to the mostly straightforward story. Then, an attention-grabbing tracking shot follows Micky as he repaves a road in his Lowell, Mass., neighborhood, while the unseen Dicky taunts him from behind the camera. It’s this kind of stylistic flourish that announces The Fighter as something more than your standard underdog sports movie.

There’s a swagger to that sequence, as the opening credits roll and Russell finally shows us Dicky, all wiry energy and bravado. He and Micky walk the streets of Lowell, taking in the adulation of local residents, as The Heavy’s “How You Like Me Now?” plays on the soundtrack. Dicky’s a local legend, having once gone the distance against Sugar Ray Leonard, and Micky’s the town’s latest hope, a promising boxer on his way up. Russell illustrates their position in hardscrabble Lowell without having to lay anything out explicitly. What follows those opening moments, however, is a much more conventional run-through of the comeback story, as both Micky and Dicky overcome obstacles on the way to a championship (with Micky in the ring and Dicky as his trainer).

It’s here that Russell demonstrates his ability to hunker down and deliver some old-fashioned crowd-pleasing entertainment. The Fighter isn’t really a movie about boxing—it’s a movie about family, about the relationship between two brothers, their relationship to their mother (Melissa Leo) and seven sisters (one of whom is played by Jenna Lamia ’00e) and Micky’s relationship with local bartender Charlene (Amy Adams). The most important battles in the movie aren’t fought in the ring, where Russell shoots the action to look exactly like an old TV broadcast, but in living rooms and on porches, where the actors dig deeply into their characters, albeit in a sometimes overblown, melodramatic fashion.

Both Bale and Leo won Oscars for their performances, which are a little too showy and broad for gritty realism, but fit right in the mold of classical movie showmanship. Dicky’s highs and lows of crack addiction offer Bale plenty of chances for grandstanding, but Wahlberg balances him out much of the time with his more measured, quiet performance. That melding of extremes is what Russell has been doing for years, and underneath all of the smooth professionalism, it may be what best personifies The Fighter as his film.

Josh Bell is the film editor of Las Vegas Weekly and has written about movies and TV for FilmCritic.com, About.com and LA Weekly.

Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures