Christian Bale has returned to acting! Thank God Almighty! After languishing in barely there roles — growling in the rebooted Batman films and picking a paycheck for “Terminator Salvation” — Mr. Bale reminded me why he used to be a name that made me want to see whatever movie he was in, regardless of what it was. The commitment he brings to this role, Dicky Eklund, took me aback because to go as far as he did in his acting, really was not necessary nor did this particular film deserve it. Just before the end credits we get a glimpse of the real Dicky Eklund and the similarities in mannerisms and speech patterns is evident, however, it never feels that Bale is ever trying to emulate or duplicate. This is the kind of performance that starts from understanding, from internalizing and letting the personality, the dress, the sunken cheeks and bulging eyes not be something superficial but be something organic. It really is a sight to behold and, if for nothing else, makes this picture something that must be seen.
Dicky Eklund was a former boxer that squandered his talents and threw away his shot at greatness. Having gone the distance with the World Champion, Sugar Ray Leonard, and perhaps knocking him down (it is a source of contention throughout the film) Dicky has fallen on hard times and on the speed needle. Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), his half brother, is the struggling boxer who spent his life living in his big brother’s shadow. The Fighter is inspired by the true story of these two brothers who came together to train for a historic title bout that will unite their fractured family and redeem their pasts.
Dicky and Micky’s (really? They couldn’t have changed one of their names? Just for the movie?) mother is played by Melissa Leo in a good performance as a woman who has all the best intentions but is too myopic to see that her intentions are ruining her children. Micky finds council and courage in a new girlfriend, Charlene (Amy Adams) who encourages Micky to split ties with his destructive family in order to save himself. At times their performances, and most of the other actors/actresses/sisters in this film were played so broadly that they bordered on caricature. Nonetheless, there were still times when all the pieces were clicking and tempers started flaring that I got all goose pimply in the theater. Mark Wahlberg plays the same role he’s always played — there is no stretch in his acting whatsoever. However, I understand that he was the main driving force behind getting The Fighter made and getting all the people and pieces in place, so kudos to him for that.
As an underdog story, there are no surprises here. As a boxing movie, it really didn’t move me. The only interesting touch brought to the fight sequences was the decision to change the film stock so that portions of the fights looked like we were watching them through old cathode ray tubes. No boxing is even really done until a good way through the film. However, once it is brought in and while it’s on screen, the pace of the film does pick up, but there was nothing new that I hadn’t already seen in “Raging Bull,” “Rocky” or “Cinderella Man.” Still my main point of contention is against the last fight. You know. The big fight. The one that this has all been leading up to. The one that could wrap up this sad little story in a nice shiny bow. My gripe is this: The last fight should never have a montage. Montages are used to show the passing of time and as such pass by too quickly to attach any sort of emotional heft to them. They are used earlier in The Fighter to do just that. The emotions between those fights are even and at a low intensity because every cut takes away any momentum that was building. The last fight needs to get all the momentum it can so that we can be thrilled when what we all know is going to happen eventually happens. Throwing a montage into the last fight undermines the emotions, the suspense and the power of the last two hours.
David O. Russell has made good films (“Three Kings,” “I Heart Huckabees“) although none have really made an impression on me. It is interesting to see him working with Christian Bale being that both of them are rather infamous for the tirades they’ve had on set. Perhaps Mr. Wahlberg, being that this is his third time working with O’Russell, deserves some recognition for keeping the peace as well.