Boxer "Irish" Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) travels an unlikely road to the world light welterweight title. His Rocky-like rise is shepherded by half-brother Dicky (Christian Bale), a boxer-turned-trainer who rebounded in life after nearly being KO'd by drugs and crime.

Boston boxing drama clocks emotional hits.

There’s a mystique about boxers and boxing that actors just seem to love. Maybe it’s got to do with taking hits for money and for the edification of an audience looking for blood. Whatever the rationale, movie lore is full of legendary yarns about the lengths performers go to in preparation for bouts staged especially for the camera.

In this quasi-bio pic, Mark Wahlberg, in the title role, looks lean and hard. It was a love-project for the actor, and he’s credited as one of the exec producers. He trained for years for the part, long before he knew the movie was a sure thing, just so his physique could have that wiry and wired tautness that is characteristic of boxers. Still, the hardened athlete covers a character struggling with an identity crisis; through much of the film Wahlberg wears an odd expression, sort of hang dog, kind of little boy lost. In a sense, The Fighter is a movie about frustration; it’s also about family and commitment, alliances and obligations. Its story resonates with the current fascination and fixation on reinvention. The big melodramatic question here revolves around loyalty. Relationships aren’t just spiritual, emotional and historical; they’re about personal development too (which is to say they’re political).

A fictionalised account of a true story about two blue collar brothers from a small town in Massachusetts, The Fighter starts off as a movie about sibling rivalry before it turns into a Rocky comeback yarn. The film seems to deliberately invite comparisons to a history of boxing movies about guys grown tired of taking a beating for the short-end money and looking at that one chance for the big time. But the details are so peculiar, the film has a strange and vital ambience of its own.

David O. Russell, a gifted director who’s never quite equalled the brilliance of Three Kings (1999) in the decade since, undertakes to mine The Fighter for black comedy and some acute character observation that’s full of truthful wit. The style isn’t imposed; it emerges from the material. There’s one great bit where Wahlberg’s Micky takes Charlene, college drop out and bar-girl (Amy Adams in a terrific performance) on their first date. The pair troop out to an upscale neighbourhood and catch a foreign art movie; Charlene isn’t impressed; 'I had to read the goddamn thing and there wasn’t even any good sex in it." The night before Micky had taken a terrible beating in the ring. A local identity, Micky has no desire to share his ignominious defeat with neighbourhood pals, but he doesn’t want to let a nice girl down. Impressed by the guy’s sensitivity and moved by his vulnerability, Charlene is won over. The pair forms a powerful alliance. Much of the rest of the movie is dedicated to how Micky’s love affair impacts on his family, who, not to put too fine a point on it, are a train wreck. Dicky (Christian Bale), a former boxing contender of some promise and now a crack addict, has a gig as Micky’s trainer. Alice (Melissa Leo), Micky’s mum, manages (or rather mismanages) his career. Micky also has seven sisters; all of whom have big hair and potty-mouths. They take an instant dislike to Charlene as does Mum.

A lot of the film is about image and desperation. Dicky allows a HBO crew into his life believing, in a way that is tragically self-delusional, that they aim to produce a film that will restore some of his battered dignity. When the film finally airs Dicky is serving time in prison and he’s depicted as yet another victim of drugs.

Shot in that consciously 'you-are-there’ realist style on what looks like real locations, The Fighter is never pretty to look at, but it’s energetic. The fight scenes appear on screen in gauzy images as if they’re coming off a TV monitor; it’s like we’re catching the action off a pay-TV exclusive. But the boxing is brutal and bloody, the actor/boxers do indeed look like they taking it for real for the cameras.

Some of the goofy family stuff and even the drug milieu is played for laughs and, at first, Bale and Leo’s characterisations seem derived from some imaginary trash TV reality show where the accents are gnarly, the dress sense horrific and the emotional manipulation is frenzied and desperate. It’s fairly late in the movie when we realise that these characters aren’t being patronised or even pitied; they’re lost and trapped and Russell wants us to care.

Bale’s performance especially is such a mask of fine external details, it’s shocking; he hides his movie star-ness behind bad dental work, a strange speech impediment and junky thinness. In a way, the performance is so on it’s almost distracting. But everything clicks once you stop looking for signs of Bale the superstar. It helps that Russell tends to cut away from big emotions. He knows he’s got a Rocky-type boxing climax to deliver and he does; it’s only after it’s over that it seems like a fairytale. Then the real brothers the movie is based on appear (during the end credit run). And you know even the corn in the movie has got to be true.

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1 hour 56 min
In Cinemas 20 January 2011,
Thu, 05/26/2011 - 11