I'm not a boxing fan and have rarely looked at or listened to fights. I've never understood the fascination in watching grown men pummel themselves to a bloody pulp and sometimes death. However, when it's part of a good story my heart races as I join the cheering crowds and root for my champion to bash the other guy's head and slam his fists into the opponent's chest until he collapses to the floor.
That's how I felt encountering Rocky many years ago, and the experience was matched at an industry screening of The Fighter at the Directors Guild last night. The scenarios are a bit different in that The Fighter, directed by David O. Russell, is based on a true story, and it is that element that makes this a cut above. More so, the fact that I'd never heard of the main character, Micky Ward, a lightweight welterweight boxer from the Boston area, played terrifically by Mark Wahlberg, and so I had no idea whether he'd win the climactic fight. After all, Rocky didn't the first time around so I won't spoil the outcome for those of you who have yet to see the film.
Though The Fighter has been nominated for a number of awards in the first series of competitions this year, the heavy money seems to be on The Social Network and The King's Speech. I've not yet seen the latter, but I have viewed The Social Network, and while I found it intriguing and quite interesting in many parts, to my mind it doesn't match the non-stopping tempo and tension of The Fighter. Nor is the dialogue as good. Aaron Sorkin is overrated in my book and was so on NBC's The West Wing, where, as in his screenplay, he wrote deft and extraordinarily articulate speeches that for the most part don't ring true as something a real person would say.
An example I would cite is the oft-shown clip wherein Facebook tycoon Mark Zuckerberg's character rips apart the Winklevoss twins who sue him for stealing their idea, and then Zuckerberg condescendingly dismisses their lawyer who tries to pin him down in a deposition. His unflinching command of language without the appearance of any thought seemed about as realistic as trying to write a script straight on without stopping to cross something out or do any editing at all.
By contrast, the frenetic style of The Fighter with a screenplay by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson, story by Tamasy, Johnson and Keith Dorrington is so authentic in its depiction of the main struggle -- not the boxing bouts, but the internecine struggles and often open warfare among the members of Micky Ward's immediate family.
And this is where the movie soars, chiefly and from the beginning with the performance of Christian Bale as Micky's older brother, Dicky Eklund, an incredibly annoying and thoughtless washed up drug addict of a fighter who has been serving as Micky's trainer. Matching Bale in his brilliant interactions is the wonderful Melissa Leo, so moving in her Oscar-nominated performance in 2008's Frozen River. Leo plays Bale and Wahlberg's mother, Alice Ward, who believe it or not is also Micky's chain smoking boxing manager. Her vile personality and poor mothering skills to Micky, Dickey and her seven (that's right, seven) daughters takes the word dysfunctional to new depths.
It's hard to imagine that Christian Bale and Melissa Leo will not get Oscar nominations for their roles here, because their riveting portrayals counterpointed by Mark Wahlberg's much too reasonable and overly (in my book) loyal attention to his family, are all Academy Award worthy. Especially Christian Bale, a former child actor in Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun, who has slowly emerged in the past 23 years through a series of interesting character roles into a magnetic star who commands the screen as Batman, yet can lose a lot of weight and tone down his handsome looks to play a pathetic loser, who nonetheless fascinates us whenever he's on the screen.
Plus, you've gotta remember the guy's from the U.K. and rarely plays one anymore, so convincingly does he suck us into his working class New England world.
Other winning performances are delivered by Amy Adams as Micky Ward's girlfriend, Charlene, and Jack McGee as Micky's long suffering father, George, forever hounded and humiliated by his wife Alice.
With a few more films to see I won't yet commit that The Fighter is at the top of the heap this year, but it's one of the best with towering performances. Trust me, you won't fall asleep.
Michael Russnow's website is ramproductionsinternational.com