The Fighter is a solid example of the old cliché: "It's not what it's about, but how it's about it." The story is a relatively standard underdog sports fable, about a decent guy who attempts to get his shot at glory. The difference is that David O. Russell chooses to focus not on the triumphs and defeats of the sporting events, but on the surrounding family that proved to be Mickey Ward's greatest challenge. The film is based on a true story, and while not every story beat is factual, it is a fleshed-out portrait of a family so unwilling to admit failure that they stand in the way of anything resembling success. The unique viewpoint combined with a few terrific performances makes The Fighter a genuine credit to its genre.
A token amount of plot: Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg) is attempting to make his way in the boxing circuit before he gets too old, but he is forever hampered by his own flesh and blood. His brother, Dickey Ward (Christian Bale), is a local hero for having knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard back in 1978, but today he is a manic crack addict. The only one who hasn't noticed Dickey's fall from grace is their mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), who still believes that Dickey will make a comeback. After a fight goes disastrously wrong, Mickey finds himself questioning the role that his family has been playing in his life. Offering a second opinion of sorts is new girlfriend, Charlene (Amy Adams), a college drop-out who sees the opportunity to give Mickey strength as a way to atone for her own poor decisions.
First and foremost, the picture is an acting powerhouse. I've often found Mark Wahlberg a somewhat limited actor, and I actually prefer his brother Donnie. But, he is in his comfort zone here, playing an unsure and not-so-confident man of few words. Mickey is a man who sees his life slipping away due to an ability to truly express how he feels towards his kin. Ward's journey is one of knowing full well what he has to do, but finding the strength to risk alienating the ones he loves. It's a low-key and introverted performance, which works well against the two powerhouses he faces off with. Melissa Leo plays the brassy and somewhat over-the-top Alice, but Leo allows us to see that her dramatics are a defense mechanism for the disappointment she feels about how her family turned out. It's a broad performance, but it is a skillful character turn.
Christian Bale gets the flashiest role, and he runs with it. For all the false talk about how Bale plays dour and moody characters, most of Bale's best work has been in the service of almost larger-than-life creations (American Psycho, Batman Begins, Rescue Dawn, etc). Needless to say, Bale has physically transformed yet himself, with the sunken eyes, shriveled and rail-thin physique, and missing teeth befitting a longtime crack addict. But this is not a cartoonish portrayal, and Bale actually gets more interesting once he hits rock bottom. This is truly one of Bale's best performances. Amy Adams brings surprising depth to what could have been the 'token love interest'. What's refreshing is that she clearly has a life outside of being Mickey's girlfriend, and Charlene actually engages in some tough love as opposed to the never-wavering 'stand-by-your-man' routine so often seen in the genre.
The film is shot and edited in a documentary fashion. In fact, much of the first half is framed around an HBO documentary crew that is following Dickie around for reasons revealed later on. The picture retains its tight focus and handheld work once the documentary crew leaves, and O. Russell gives the whole film a rich blue-collar realism. The film does have a few issues; chief amongst them is the borderline villainy of nearly every woman in the picture save for Charlene. Mickey's ex-wife and mother of his child is not given a single redeeming characteristic, and Mickey's copious sisters are are cartoonishly broad caricatures. Not helping is the fact that every woman looks like a beaten-down resident of Lowell, Massachusetts save for Charlene, who looks like, well, Amy Adams. Some on-the-nose soundtrack choices take us out of the picture, particularly a comeback montage literally set to 'Back in the Saddle'. And, based on a true story or not, but several antagonistic characters inexplicably suddenly see the light exactly when the plot requires them to.
Warts and all, The Fighter is a completely entertaining and compelling character study. By keeping the focus on the family rather than the sport, David O. Russell gives a solid cast the chance to shine and gives the boxing matches an added potency. It may be just another 'underdog attempts to triumph with the help of a trusted girlfriend' fable, but thanks to the cast (especially Christian Bale and Melissa Leo), it's a darn-good entry in a well-worn genre.