Who’s In It: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, Mickey O’Keefe, Jack McGee
The Basics: Professional boxer “Irish” Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) lives in the shadow of his older brother Dickie Eklund (Christian Bale) in the working-class town of Lowell, Massachusetts, where Dickie, now a crack addict, still clings to his former glory as the local hero who once went toe-to-toe with Sugar Ray Leonard in the ring. Trapped into playing sole provider for his extended family under the management of his overbearing mother (Melissa Leo), Micky’s career flounders as his leeching family pushes him into one bad fight after another. Enter Charlene (Amy Adams), a feisty local bartender and the first person to stand in Micky’s metaphorical corner. As Micky learns to stand up to his brother and his mother, his boxing prospects improve and he finds himself vying for a title shot – but does he really need Dickie by his side?
What’s The Deal: Star and producer Mark Wahlberg poured five years into getting The Fighter made and training to play Micky Ward while co-star Christian Bale dropped dramatic weight to capture the essence and tragedy of the gregarious Dickie Eklund, but there’s clearly more than just actorly dedication etched into their fine performances as the real-life brothers. Affection and deep respect for Micky, Dickie and even their easy-to-judge, unlikable family members permeate the film, which owes as much credit to director David O. Russell as it does to the unflinching script by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson. Ward’s story may unfold in the manner of many sports biopics – he’s never anything but the underdog, a punching bag yearning to reach his full potential instead of being a “stepping stone” for other upwardly mobile contenders – but The Fighter’s more about the complex familial ties that bind than it is about the sweet science itself.
An Emotional Heavy Hitter: For all of the beatings Wahlberg’s Ward receives in the ring, none compare to the emotional blows he suffers from a lifetime of being second-best in his mother’s eyes, or from being neglected whenever Dickie needs his next fix, or even from being caught in the middle of it all, pushed and pulled in different directions by everyone he loves. There’s an oppressive kind of anxiety in the way that Micky’s constantly being harangued on all sides with nary an opportunity to raise his voice or shout at everyone to leave him alone. And yet, well-studied performances by Wahlberg, Bale and Leo make even the worst, most hurtful moments utterly understandable. With family like this, who needs giant men waiting to pummel you to pieces with all the world watching?
Finding The Tragic Humor In Drug Addiction And Bad ‘90s Hair: Director David O. Russell manages the emotional ebb and flow with moments that lift the mood temporarily before shifting into much graver territory, as when Dickie presents his big “Hollywood” debut to a cheering crowd of prison inmates only to realize that the HBO crew documenting his big comeback was really making an example of his life in a special about the dangers of crack addiction. Micky and Charlene go on a hilarious first date to an art cinema showing Belle Epoque, but he admits it’s only because he’s embarrassed to show his face at their local hangouts. More tragic than anything, however, are the terrible-amazing early-'90s teases worn by Micky and Dickie’s shrewish chorus of sisters, side characters so incorrigibly awful you can’t help but love them.
Thank Goodness For: Amy Adams, who shrugs off her cutesy, tremulous screen persona to play a tough, bitchy, foul-mouthed barroom angel. She teaches Micky to have a backbone, spars fearlessly with Melissa Leo, and when Leo and her harpy daughters come looking for a fight in the middle of the afternoon, she earns her own brawler’s status by breaking a future sister-in-law’s nose in a highly entertaining cat fight strewn with insults and hair-pulling galore.