The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Fighter
Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg are hometown heroes in The Fighter.

The "rags to riches" story is one of the creakiest in sports cinema, because we've had it told to us hundreds of times. I've seen sports-related pictures that were based on amazing real events, yet felt clichéd because of the utterly routine trajectories of the storytelling. The Fighter is not one of those movies. While it has an old familiar theme - athlete must overcome great obstacles in order to become a top achiever - this particular tale is about a guy whose hurdles were more interior. He didn't have a life-threatening injury, didn't have to deal with discrimination, and wasn't dirt poor. He just had a family. A family that was heavily invested in the sport of boxing, no less. There wasn't much else for former world champion "Irish" Micky Ward to do other than box. The details of how it almost-didn't-happen-but-did are the heart of The Fighter.

Mark Wahlberg plays Ward who, when we meet him, is living in the shadow of his trainer/half-brother Dickie Eklund (Christian Bale), known as "the Pride of Lowell" for having once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard. Despite the fact that Dickie has bottomed out from too much crack use, he's still a legend, both in his Boston neighborhood and within his own family. When he bothers to show up for training, he gives Micky decent advice, but manager mother Alice (Melissa Leo) sets her younger son up in bad fights that do little to advance his career. You almost sense that she doesn't want Micky to become too successful because then he'd surpass poor Dickie.

After a bum fight and a near-calamitous run-in with the law while defending his brother, Micky starts to think he'd be better off getting some distance from his family. His girlfriend, a barmaid named Charlene (Amy Adams), encourages him to focus on himself and not them. At her prodding, he gets a new manager and trainer, and before you know it, things start to look up. The decision doesn't sit well, though; to Alice and Dickie, his actions are nothing less than a betrayal. Micky, determined to be a good son and a worthy brother, feels guilt-tripped and torn between what he wants and what others want for him.

What I responded to most in The Fighter was the idea that Micky Ward came from a very toxic family - one that he loved dearly but needed to get out from under in order to advance his career. The film doesn't shy away from showing the dysfunction. Alice protects and even excuses Dickie, no matter how bad his drug habit becomes. Even from a prison cell, Dickie brags about his "comeback" and his career-defining bout with Leonard. There are several sisters who follow the party line, drilling it into Micky's head that he's nothing without his brother. The vividness with which The Fighter depicts all this really helps you understand what Micky Ward had to overcome. I'm not going to put it in the same league with Raging Bull because that film has had over two decades to prove itself an all-time classic, but I will say that The Fighter shares with that picture an amazing ability to portray its main character's personal life with such authenticity that the boxing scenes become more than sport - they become a fight for life.

The key to dealing with this kind of subject matter is casting the right actors. Without that, the audience might end up hating the characters instead of recognizing their weaknesses but caring about them anyway. On that count, this is one of the most well-cast movies you will ever see. You've got Melissa Leo effectively playing the kind of lovingly domineering mother that it's hard to say no to, and Christian Bale embodying the spirit of a screw-up whose heart is nevertheless in the right place. Bale, in particular, is a highlight among highlights. His Dickie is all nervous energy. He has deluded himself into thinking that he's going to make a comeback, even while sucking on that glass pipe. Bale perfectly nails the twitchiness that junkies often try unsuccessfully to hide. The actor disappears fully into character, giving a performance that has to be seen.

On the other side of the fence is Amy Adams as Charlene, a tough cookie who knows she blew her chance to do something in life and doesn't want to see Micky make the same mistake. There are scenes where Charlene goes toe-to-toe with Alice, with neither woman backing down over the man they both love, albeit in different ways. I was kind of disappointed when Adams starred in the generic romantic comedy Leap Year back in January, because she's capable of so much more. This role proves again that she is one of the most exciting, capable actresses working today.

In the center of it all is Mark Wahlberg, who has the least showy role and somehow manages not to get upstaged. Wahlberg is a minimalist actor. He doesn't do chameleon stuff or overplay scenes; he simply brings out the emotions of any character he's playing. That ability works well here. We sense how much Micky wants to make it in boxing, as well as the intense loyalty he has to his family. The guy is pulled in different directions throughout as he tries to find a way to reconcile family, a relationship, and a career. Wahlberg makes us understand that this paradox is what gives him his drive.

You may have sensed that The Fighter is not really a boxing movie. When the boxing does come, director David O. Russell finds new, innovative ways to film it. During the climactic bout, he films using video cameras so that the image looks like an era-appropriate HBO Sports broadcast. Russell, a cinematic wild card who has made such endearingly offbeat pictures as Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees, intentionally avoids anything that feels too obvious. Even the family scenes are shot with originality, which draws you in rather than pushing you away. The director also shows a knack for precision. The domestic scenes have real weight to them. There are no good guys or bad guys here, just a lot of people who have different motivations that sometimes work in unison and other times clash violently. Russell keeps the balance throughout, never making anyone a cheap villain or, conversely, a saint.

I felt good at the end of the picture, although not in the usual rah-rah sports-movie way. Again, Micky Ward's struggle was unique, and the way it resolves itself is not entirely the way you'd expect. It is less about black-or-white and more about the gray in the middle. In order to become a true champion, Micky needs that gray, which is what he comes to understand. The triumph isn't just that he makes it as a boxer, it's that he finds a way to do it on his own terms. A bad situation brings out the best in him, and he, in turn, brings out the best in others. The Fighter is a great movie about a boxer; it's an even better movie about a family.

( out of four)

The Fighter is rated R for language throughout, drug content, some violence and sexuality. The running time is 1 hour and 56 minutes.