Drug abuse and sports are not uncommon bedfellows, though Hollywood rarely tends to tell stories of athletes with unsavory habits. “The Fighter,” from director David O. Russell (“I Heart Huckabees,” “Three Kings”), delves straight into this dark territory, delivering the hard-hitting true story of boxers Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund, step-brothers bound by their love of the sport but rent apart by Dicky’s tragic addiction.
A former fighter famous for a slugfest with Sugar Ray Leonard in 1978, Dickie, played to Academy Award-winning perfection by Christian Bale, struggles to escape the downward spiral of his life after quitting boxing by training his younger half-brother. The role of Micky, a character as sober and dedicated as his sibling is strung-out and unavailable, is filled by the always stalwart Mark Wahlberg. Together they aim to restore Micky’s struggling career after a string of losses in the ring.
Boxing is the business of the Ward family, a hoard of hardscrabble people from Lowell, Massachusetts. Another Academy Award winner, Melissa Leo, plays the boys’ mother, a demanding matriarch who managed the career of Dicky and continues to control Micky’s prospects. Seven sisters round out the family and provide plentiful comic relief when the film threatens to topple under the weight of the subject matter.
“The Fighter” is definitely not an uplifting Rocky-esque romp for the majority of its two-hour running time. The family conflicts that surface as Micky attempts to restart his career, an aspiration that requires he escape the limiting influences of his mother and step-brother, coupled with the deterioration of Dicky in the grips of crack addiction makes for the serious drama that is the focus of the film. (A interesting meta-cinematic side plot involves an HBO film crew that trails Dicky for a documentary film, released in reality in 1995 under the title “High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell”).
An arrest and subsequent prison sentence for Dicky offers Micky the chance to split from his family, an opportunity he seizes at the urging of his girlfriend, a headstrong barkeep played by Amy Adams. It is after Micky hires new management that the film’s plot starts to slid toward the predictable. The requisite training and boxing montages throw no new punches. Here, “The Fighter” tries to occupy a non-existent medium between “Rocky” and “Raging Bull,” with the resulting fighting sequences turning out stilled, artificial, and boring.
The ensemble cast of “The Fighter” is without a doubt the strongest of last year. It is hard to take one’s eyes off of the bobbing and weaving and stumbling skeletal form of Mr. Bale: he is repulsive and charming in the same breath. Watching the dueling performances of Mr. Bale and Ms. Leo proves the greatest pleasure of the film. Theirs is a heart-wrenching portrayal of the frayed bonds of a mother and son separated by dashed dreams and chemical dependence. Along with the gaggle of sisters, these two capture the effortless banter of a tight-knit family that has lived and bickered together for decades.
Ms. Adams also excels in her role as a domestic intruder trying to break into the the insular Ward clan. Mark Wahlberg may be the only weak link in the film, though the role of Micky demands more of a hardheaded, emotionally impenetrable stance. Mr. Wahlberg stands in danger of typecasting himself as rough, tough guy from the Boston area if he continues with roles like his of the last few years. The superb accents from the entire cast ground the film in its Lowell location and serve to make the movie an even greater immersion into the lives and tribulations of the Ward family.
“The Fighter” outshines many of its cohorts in the sports movie genre with its outstanding acting and compelling portrait of individuals and a family in transition. Mr. Bale and Ms. Leo’s accomplishment in making their detestable characters sympathetic overshadows the few blemishes on the face of “The Fighter” and certainly places it among 2010’s finest films.
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