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THE FIGHTER (2010) (****)

Of all the sports to grace the screen, boxing has easily inspired the greatest films. Now director David O. Russell has added another to the ranks of RAGING BULL, ROCKY and MILLION DOLLAR BABY. But like all of those films, the reason this film is great is not because it’s a boxing movie. This is a story of family and how for some they can either help them raise their arms in victory or punch them below the belt.

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Of all the sports to grace the screen, boxing has easily inspired the greatest films. Now director David O. Russell has added another to the ranks of RAGING BULL, ROCKY and MILLION DOLLAR BABY. But like all of those films, the reason this film is great is not because it’s a boxing movie. This is a story of family and how for some they can either help them raise their arms in victory or punch them below the belt.

Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg, THE DEPARTED) has been a promising boxer for years, but always staying at the promising level. Some have started to believe he’s simply a stepping stone for other boxers to fight in order to move up the ranks. He learned everything he knows about boxing from his older brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale, THE MACHINIST), who at one time knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard. Now he’s an unpredictable crack addict. Micky’s career has always been a family affair. His mother Alice (Melissa Leo, FROZEN RIVER) is his manager, but Micky begins to wonder if they have his best interests in mind after they put him up against a boxer 20 pounds heavier.

Micky struggles with what to do about his disappointing career. He starts dating a bartender named Charlene (Amy Adams, JUNEBUG), who wonders if his loyalty to his family is not blinded him. Dicky has only good intentions, but he’s always high, late and getting into trouble, all of which affect Micky negatively. Cop/trainer Mickey O’Keefe (playing himself) wants to train him, but only if Micky bars Alice and Dicky from the gym. Micky’s father George (Jack McGee, CRASH) knows what is best for Micky, but how can he go against the fighter Alice and her posse of daughters, which number something like seven… I lost count after a while.

While the film offers some unexpected humor at the expense of the white trash family, Russell never has his characters apologize for their behavior. For Micky, it’s his life and he knows nothing different. When he starts seeing Charlene, he sees a future that is different than the one he always imagined for himself. But his family is the weight bag tied to his back. Dicky is a force of nature and Micky is a meteorologist who gets sucked up into the pull of the storm.

Wahlberg has never been more retrained. All he wants to do is step out from his brother’s shadow whether it’s in the public eye of his hometown or within his family. He wants to become his own boxer and his own man. Wahlberg conveys this with real tenderness. He is supported by a collection of the best supporting performances of the year.

Bale makes Dicky a personality who draws attention the second he walks into the room. Sometimes that attention is from his sense of humor and sometimes from his wacked out behavior. Bale is effortlessly convincing as the addicted man who once was a champion caliber fighter. He uses to forget what he missed with his career. It’s hard to know exactly whether drugs ended his career or if the end of his career led him to drugs. It's one of the best performances of the year.

As for the female supporting cast, great performances come from Oscar nominees Leo and Adams. Leo plays Alice as a hard as nails working-class woman with a touch of P.T. Barnum. The only problem is that she's running a third-rate circus. She loves her kids, but she also loves what they can bring her. She coddles Dicky, knowing he has problems, but never fully admitting that they are bringing him down. Her son's comeback is just around the corner even though she has to retrieve him from a crack house on a regular basis.

Adams makes Charlene hard as nails in another way. She has a past, partying away a college scholarship and ending up tending bar as a result. She believes in Micky and hates his family. And she certainly isn't scared of them. She goes into their house and tells them how it is. As they say, she's got a brass set.

This is one of the very best films of 2010, because it tells a great story with patience, allowing us to know the characters. It lets its entire cast take center stage and develops deeper meaning from them. It's about family. It's about one brother succeeding where another brother failed. It's about redemption. It's about the pressure of success. It's about life.

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Rick DeMott
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