An arrogant boxer makes for a lousy film. Humble wrestlers? The same. The showboater, the one who crows and taunts and hops around like a kid on a sugar-high, no matter how high that actor’s name is in the credits, the audience will be not-so-secretly hoping they get pummeled down, every ounce of ego knocked out like air escaping a balloon. Filmmakers are fully aware of this rule, of course, that’s why we know that the Rocky Balboa of the start of Rocky IV is due for a comeuppance. Wrestlers, of course, are a different matter. Athletes of the highest sort, they are still performers through and through, and preening is all part of the game.
Because of this, Mark Wahlberg’s whispery, self-effacing performance in The Figher as slightly over-the-hill boxer Mickey Ward makes a beautiful kind of sense. (It’s best, perhaps, that The Wrestler’s Darren Aronofsky bowed out of this production, staying on as producer, as his pyrotechnic tendencies may have got the better of him and overwhelmed the story.) Though Mickey’s a boxer and surrounded by an almost compulsively combative circle of friends and family, he only seems to lash out in physical rage once in the entire film: when a customer makes an obnoxious comment to Charlene (Amy Adams), a bartender he’s trying to pick up. Other than that, the fighting is strictly business. No room for false heroics here. As Mickey’s brother Dick Eklund (Christian Bale) reminds him right before a fight, when Mickey finds himself facing not the opponent he’d planned on but a musclebound killer some twenty pounds heavier, “if you don’t fight, nobody gets paid.”
Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale
Money is never far from the surface in this film, as it shouldn’t be, given the setting (surprisingly grounded for I Heart Huckabees director David O. Russell). Lowell, Massachusetts, is a depressed former mill town in the shadow of Boston where Mickey works the road crew spreading asphalt and wondering whether he missed his shot for the boxing big time.
His family, a cackling cabal of big-haired sisters and a brooding mother who seem to have dropped in from some tweaked New England twist on a Grimm’s fairy tale, has a sense that he might be their ticket as well. So matter how outmatched Mickey is, no matter how poorly his mother Alice (Melissa Leo, pulling off a role of Shakespearean magnitude and grit) manages the tattered shreds of his career, no matter how late his trainer Dick (a former boxer himself, now more interested in putting in time at his local crack den) is, the fight must go on.
The real Mickey Ward has one of those stories that doesn’t come along very often, as though it were made for the movies. A no-luck kid with heart from a tough town in an overlooked weight division, junior welterweight, that doesn’t get the celebrity attention showered upon heavyweights, gets his act together and makes an improbable run at a championship.
Smartly, though, the film pays just as much attention to Mickey’s older shadow, Dick. A near-burnt-out clown ghosting on the fumes of his past, at the start of the film Dick is cutting everyone up on the saggy, ragged streets of Lowell. His face and body are sucked dry by the drugs, but his jittery energy and compulsive performing make him the life of the party, shouting out to everybody (Mickey humbling following in tow) that the camera crew following him is shooting a movie about his comeback. As Dick reminds everyone, he went a few rounds with Sugar Ray Leonard back in the late-1970s – Russell slips in the actual footage of the fight, and Leonard even pops up playing himself. Dick has himself and his mother convinced that he’s the real star of the family (the gaggle of sisters are just a Budweiser-slugging, hair-pulling chorus), and in the meantime, quiet little Mickey will have to do.
The reality, of course, has little to do with Dick’s fantasies. The camera crew following him is actually shooting an HBO documentary about the crack epidemic in Lowell (the real documentary, High on Crack Street, was broadcast in 1995). There is no comeback. And the habit that’s devastated his mind and body is also critically injuring Mickey’s chances to return to the ring. But like almost everybody in the film, it’s hard to tear your eyes off of him, what with Bale’s scorched-earth performance in which every fiber of him seems to thrum with a tangled coil of want and sadness. Somewhere off to the side, Wahlberg – who deserves credit for giving himself the more stoic starring role, knowing full well that he’d be upstaged – plugs along, facing the full wrath of Alice and her girls once he decides to bring on new management.
Later on, The Fighter becomes more of a boxing film, though casual viewers will still leave it not knowing much more about the sport than when they entered. Up until then, Russell swims contentedly in the current of Mickey’s battle-scarred family, delighting almost too much in the spectacle of lower-class inter-familial brawling and poisonous, scrabbling resentments. There’s a sideshow element to Russell’s direction that’s hard to shake, though he does take pain to note the bone-deep hurt when we see the family watch Dick’s performance in the crack documentary, their faces pale with embarrassment for themselves and their town.
The real story, however, eventually resides more in the corner of the ring, where Dick holds Mickey’s head to his own, fighting his own impulses to claw back a fame he never truly had, and telling his brother to get out there, but for himself, not the family.
Watching Wahlberg here is to see reflected every hopeless fight you ever had. To watch Bale is to see somebody’s heart break every minute of their life.