The Fighter (2010)

Gritty ‘Fighter’ has a bit of a glass jaw

In recounting the bare-knuckle lives of Lowell, Mass., boxing legends Dicky Eklund and “Irish” Micky Ward, David O. Russell aims for the level of Cain and Abel, but winds up with something more akin to Dennis and Randy Quaid.

You know the story: older, more talented brother’s penchant for sin and insanity becomes an albatross for younger, big-hearted sibling. It’s literally as old as the Bible. This time, though, nobody dies and Abel prevails, but not without a fight.

Actually, more like dozens of fights — some in the ring, but far more under the creaky roof of their chain-smoking, whiskey-swilling boxing manager of a mother, Alice Ward.

As the younger, more gullible Micky, Mark Wahlberg goes against type to play one of his more sympathetic characters since Russell’s brilliant “Three Kings.” The bulked-up star not only looks the part of a light welterweight contender, but he also affectingly projects the myopic nature of a man who refuses to see the cracks in the crack-covered pedestal holding up his drug-addicted half-brother.

That would be Dicky, a former light middleweight contender, who self-destructed after a middling boxing career in which he famously knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard in a 1978 bout at Boston Garden. But just about any pugilist will tell you that Dicky Eklund possessed the skills and smarts to be a world champion, if only he had stayed away from the women, wine and crack.

Yet, even when Dicky is stoned or fails to fulfill his duties as Micky’s oft-absent trainer, he repeatedly displays a knack for charming his way out of any fix, an ability that a frighteningly gaunt Christian Bale deftly perfects. He lost 30 pounds for the part, and it shows in his sunken cheeks, buggy eyes and rail-thin physique.

It’s a sad sight, but even sadder is what’s going on beneath the surface, where a promising life has been exhausted to the point that he’s become a parasite on his kid brother, through whom he tries to vicariously reach the goals he was too weak to reach.

Set in the 1990s and shot entirely on location in Lowell, “The Fighter” scales back on the usual boxing-pic trappings to immerse itself in the blue-collar lives of Micky and Dicky’s wildly dysfunctional family, which also includes their seven sisters (all portraying themselves) and Micky’s sweeter-than-an-Irish spring dad, George (Jack McGee from “Rescue Me”). But it’s Alice, played by the outstanding Melissa Leo, who rules the roost from under a short platinum bob.

Leo, resurrecting her pitch-perfect Bawston accent from “The Contender,” delivers her most balls-to-the-wall performance yet. You can tell she’s having a blast, too, ordering people around like Patton and waging war on anyone, especially boxing promoters, trying to lure her Micky away from the family.

Every time Leo is onscreen, “The Fighter” comes deliriously alive and unpredictable, as her Alice captivates you with a combination of attitude and moxie befitting a chain-smoking force of nature in a skin-tight mini-skirt.

Leo is particularly strong when she goes toe-to-toe with Amy Adams as Micky’s new uppity, “college educated” bartender girlfriend, Charlene, who is not afraid of anyone, including Alice. Listening to them trade subtle insults and backhanded compliments are the comedic highlight of a movie that guns the gamut of emotions.

Those sly bits of humor, though, are the film’s greatest gift, though it requires Russell to walk a mighty narrow line between laughing with the family and laughing at them. And while he wanders awfully close at times, Russell never crosses over into parody.

Nor does he fill his story with phony, “Rocky”-like uplift. But that’s not to say the story doesn’t have its “Rocky” moments, particularly down the stretch, when the family is threatening to be torn asunder just as the boxing gods begin to smile on Micky.

It’s quite a conclusion, too. And the less you know about it going in, the bigger the payoff will be. The problem is getting to that point, especially during the film’s plodding midsection, where the story starts to grow repetitive and overstated in depicting Dicky’s many foibles.

That’s not so much Russell’s fault as it is the three writers who each took a swipe at telling Micky and Dicky’s bigger-than-life story. And with each re-write you sense nuance filtered out, depriving the film of the focus and continuity required to make a good movie great.

Still, look for “The Fighter” to be a major player at the Oscars, with Adams, Leo and Bale shoo-ins, along with cinematographer, Hoyte van Hoytema (“Let the Right One In”), who never fails to capture Lowell and its impoverished neighborhoods with a you-are-there clarity.

That level of talent underscores how intently Russell sought to score a knockout. But his inability to sufficiently exploit the chaotic lives of these fascinating characters ruefully results in something nearer a split decision.

Movie review

The Fighter

Rated: R for language, drug use and violence

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo and Jack McGee

Director: David O. Russell

Writer: Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson

Runtime: 116 minutes

Grade: B

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