Passion, desperation, and an honest-to-the-bone realism saturate The Fighter, a gritty family drama wrapped inside a boxing film.
Mark Wahlberg stars as real-life professional boxer Micky Ward, whose drive to become a successful fighter is alternately aided and thwarted by his crack-addicted older half-brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) and domineering mother Alice (Melissa Leo), who doubles as his manager.
Eklund's background is a tragic one, as he once rose to meteoric fame by knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard, and then lost everything in a drug-induced dive. His major purpose in life has become using his considerable boxing knowledge to train his younger brother to have the successful career he never had. His concurrent crack binges, however, end up harming his brother's career opportunities as much as his boxing expertise helps them.
Ward's mother, Alice, has a similar effect on her younger son's aspirations, pushing him to succeed but seemingly more focused on the greatness her older son had before him, lost, and is trying to attain again.
Sensing that his family may not truly have his best interests at heart, Ward turns to a beautiful and tough barmaid (Amy Adams) to help him sort out what he wants in life.
Wahlberg's performance is exceptional, and his dedication to the role is evident. Doubling as a producer on the film, Wahlberg reportedly viewed Ward as a local hero, both actor and real-life character having grown up in large, working-class Massachusetts families. Wahlberg spent more than four years working on developing the physique and boxing prowess he believed he needed to credibly portray his hero.
Adams also does a remarkable job playing against type as Ward's strong-willed love interest, Charlene, who desperately wants something (or someone) better in her life.
Standing out above everyone, though, is Bale, who delivers a tour-de-force performance as Eklund. He lost quite a bit of weight to play this drug-addled shell of a man, and he throws himself entirely into the role. Expect plenty of awards to come his way.
What really helps distinguish this film, though, is its reality TV feeling, aided to great effect by director David O. Russell's decision to use the device of an HBO crew filming a documentary about Eklund. The crew is presumably chronicling Eklund's boxing comeback but ends up revealing the tragic results of crack addiction and throws the audience deeper into the painful realization of how Eklund's choices devastate his family, a pain accentuated by the foul language that litters the entire film. The language, along with realistic violence in the boxing ring and scenes depicting drug use and prostitution earn the film a hard R rating.
The Fighter successfully captures one of the frustrating tensions many people experience with family: While it may be nearly impossible to live with them at times, it can be even harder to live without them.
-Michael Leaser is editor of FilmGrace and an associate of The Clapham Group