FILM RATING: 4 stars
(Upgraded from 3.5 to 4 stars on September 29, 2011)
One of the best boxing movies I’ve ever seen is Mark Wahlberg’s The Fighter (2010). It’s right up there with Cinderella Man (2005), Rocky (1976), Rocky II (1979), and Rocky IV (1985). It may even be the best boxing movie I’ve ever seen…but only time will tell for sure. Right now, I consider Cinderella Man my favorite. I haven’t seen Raging Bull (1980) yet, and while I liked Million Dollar Baby (2004), it just didn’t pack the same emotional punch for me.
What stands out about The Fighter compared to Cinderella Man and the Rocky films is the photography of the actual boxing scenes. The Fighter used the actual 1980s camera crews from HBO who filmed some of the “Irish” Micky Ward fights that this film is about. They even used the same cameras from that time period to give the same look and feel to some of the footage of the fights, like you’re watching them live almost. It’s the combination of that incredible cinematography, the awesome sound effects and music, and the stellar “acting” by Mark Wahlberg and his opponents that make the fights feel so real. I was literally squirming around in my theater seat during every boxing match in the film. It was just such a visceral presentation that made me feel right there in the ring, ducking punches and feeling battered & bruised.
Part of what really lends a realism and emotional depth to the boxing in this film, is that Wahlberg actually trained as a boxer for 5 years leading up to his role on the film. It took that many years and more to get the film made, and while he was fighting to get this movie produced, he was training so that he didn’t just look like he was acting. And it handsomely paid off! The best parts of The Fighter are in the ring. But there’s an awful lot to love outside of the ring as well. Christian Bale plays Dicky Eklund, half brother of Micky, a former boxer himself, and Micky’s trainer. Dicky is most well known for his fight with Sugar Ray Leonard. But Dicky has fallen into a drug habit that keeps him from being effective as a brother, a boxer, or a trainer. He even winds up in jail for a period of time, where he is finally forced to get clean. That forces Micky to get a new trainer, but Dicky comes back as soon as he gets released. The brotherly bonds prevail after all! Bale plays Dicky very well. I can’t say that I really liked the Dicky character, although he redeems himself towards the end of the film. But Bale’s performance is definitely worthy of his recent Best Supporting Actor nomination. He inhabits the role like no one else could, like it or not.
The real out-of-the-ring punches come in The Fighter from two incredible women: Amy Adams as Micky’s girlfriend and Melissa Leo as his mother. Both give unbelievable performances that are probably their best to date. They literally fight with their hands and their words. They’ve both received Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress in honor of these roles, so they will continue their onscreen “fighting” offscreen at the Academy Awards later this month. I’m personally cheering for Leo to win since I think her performance just edges out Adams, and her body of work for many years has earned her the recognition in my opinion. In addition to Adams and Leo are a gaggle of Micky’s sisters, some of whom are actually played by Micky Ward’s real sisters. They definitely add some spice to the mix, and help create some incredibly tense family scenes. Actor Jack McGee really shines as well as Melissa Leo’s boyfriend, and Micky’s stepfather. The beating he takes both emotionally and physically from Melissa Leo’s character is one of the most memorable “fight” scenes I’ve seen in awhile! It had me laughing and feeling sorry for him at the same time!
Director David O. Russell, mostly known for Three Kings (1999), really had his work cut out for him here. And he rose to the occasion beautifully! The Fighter is not nearly as flashy of a film as Three Kings, but it’s got this solid, gritty, cinematic realism and incredible emotional depth to the storytelling that makes it engaging. Whereas Three Kings was more unique in terms of filmmaking style, The Fighter is more classic in its style. But it’s very effective. I found the pacing at some points to be a little slow and boring, but overall, the film flowed pretty smoothly. I think Russell did the best that he could with the story he was telling.
The cinematography, outside of the ring fights, is adequate. This is probably the area I was most disappointed. The film felt a little too gritty, grainy, and gray for my taste. Granted, it’s also the 1980’s and the feel of the area where the story takes place, so I think the filmmakers chose to lend it that very realistic look and feel. Still, I like to say great camera work, and that just didn’t happen in this film for me. I’d be willing to say that it could have just been the theatrical presentation itself. I’ve noticed some of the theaters have some crappy projectors sometimes. I’ll be curious to see if I feel the same way when I watch the film again on Blu-ray at home.
The production design on the film is perfectly suited to the story, but like the cinematography, it didn’t really stand out for me on a purely artistic level. While the music score by Michael Brook was a bit weak and could’ve been stronger, the rock songs used throughout the film really worked well, especially the song “How You Like Me Now” by The Heavy. That song is definitely now the song I hear when I think of The Fighter. It’s permanently etched into my brain with this film, and it really works in the movie to build-up energy for a fight.
There’s a lot to like with The Fighter. I didn’t really have any expectations going into the theater for this film. In fact, I was expecting to be less satisfying based on some critics’ reviews. But I’m very glad I saw this film in the theater, because that big screen presentation with the loud sound system really helped this film knock me out. If I were you, I’d catch in the theater if you can, but I’m sure it will play well at home as well.