“The Fighter” struggles to break out of sports-movie clichés

The Fighter
Directed by David O. Russell

A peculiar mix of auteur impulses and sports-movie predictability, David O. Russell’s first feature since 2004’s divisive philosophical comedy I Heart Huckabees has the feel of a director-for-hire gig that manages to throw a few small wrenches into an otherwise rigid machine. The result of co-producer and star Mark Wahlberg’s long-term desire to make a movie about real-life boxer (and friend) “Irish” Micky Ward, The Fighter occasionally transcends expectation but mostly caves to formula, however enthusiastically expressed.

Wahlberg stars as Ward, a would-be welterweight champ who is seen as a “stepping stone” for better fighters to trample over, especially as he exists in the shadow of his brother, boxer-turned-crack-addict Dicky (Christian Bale), who trains him when he’s not holed up in his drug den. As Ward attempts to plot a successful run for the title, his efforts are complicated by Dicky’s destructive behavior, as well as his domineering mother (Melissa Leo, overdoing it), but he finds an ally in Charlene (Amy Adams), a barmaid and former high-jumper, who encourages him to assert his independence and seek training outside of his troubled inner circle.

Evoking its early-90s, inner-city Massachusetts millieu with a reasonable degree of grit and detail (helped along by purloining some of the memorable faces last seen in Gone Baby Gone), The Fighter tries valiantly to differentiate itself through a number of stylistic flourishes that hint at the film’s long gestation period. A framing device is employed in which Ward and his brother are subjected to talking-head interviews as well as the constant eye of a camera crew, in the service of an HBO documentary whose true nature is made clear only midway through the film. Real-life footage from Ward’s fights are artfully stitched into Russell’s re-enactments.

Really, though, there’s no filmic effect half as committed as Bale’s typically method performance, as he retreats to his Machinist / Rescue Dawn body weight, wears a persistently slacked jaw, and cranks up the pained goofiness. It’s a performance that might have come across as annoying showboating were it not for Wahlberg, whose presence is so deliberately dialed down that it feels just as mannered as Bale, only with inverse energy. It’s not a subtle balancing act, but it works. More refreshing than either of those performances, though, is Adams’ Charlene, a skull-cracking badass that Adams inhabits with glee, demolishing her last half-dozen roles in lukewarm romantic comedies and reminding us why she’s one of America’s best working actresses.

Business is business, however, and ultimately The Fighter has to at least attempt to deliver the formula sports-movie goods, and on that front it has nothing new to offer. The two major fights in the film are competently staged, but despite the fact that they occur on different continents, it’s difficult to ignore that they play out almost identically. Beyond that, some of the story beats involving Ward and his family troubles don’t quite hit the mark, particularly those involving Leo’s overbearing mother/manager, whose responsibility for her sons’ lax upbringing is never adequately measured, with the film’s overly genial all-is-well coda attempting to wallpaper any and all potentially thorny paternal issues. Where Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler was able to imbue its familiar riches-to-rags-to-glory plot with a wounded sense of humanity, Russell can’t consistently locate a beating heart in the material, and the result is a movie that only fitfully feels like something you haven’t already watched.

Simon Howell

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