It’s 1993 in working-class Lowell, Massachusetts, and Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) is a struggling boxer employed as a manual-laborer along with his older brother, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale). Micky and Dicky are from a family with an overbearing mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), who has nine children from two men. Alice is tough and opinionated, but also deeply devoted to her children—especially to her sons. She’s so devoted that, for the most part, she overlooks Dicky’s drug habit and his frequent screw-ups as Micky’s trainer.
Alice chooses to see Dicky as who he once was rather than the shell of a man he has become. Fifteen years earlier, Dicky was a promising boxer who knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard and was called “The Pride of Lowell”. There is some dispute around town as to whether Dicky actually floored Leonard or whether Leonard “slipped”, but Alice and Dicky are impervious to the gossip. Alice is proud of her son, and Dicky basks in his former glory, constantly bringing up the success and saying that Leonard “couldn’t get to me.”
But Dicky is far from the young-man-on-the-rise he was during that fight. He is now a crack-addicted junkie who holes up in a dilapidated house with other addicts and is often late to Micky’s training sessions. He is so delusional that he believes a documentary in which he is being featured is about his “comeback” rather than about drug addiction in America.
Despite all his flaws, Dicky is a sympathetic character. He has a young son whom he clearly loves; he defends his mother if anyone dares to cross her; and—when he is able—he sincerely tries to guide Micky’s career. Dicky is funny and gregarious, and he can’t saunter through Lowell without stopping to joke with his neighbors. Addiction robbed him of his chances for success, but he strives to make that success happen for his brother.
Christian Bale’s portrayal of Micky is astounding, as he disappears into the role and effectively portrays all of its complexities. The usually handsome Bale—a master chameleon—physically transforms into a frighteningly thin, haggard, balding, twitchy, and wild-eyed addict who never stops moving his jittery limbs.
Bale skillfully handles the nuances of the character—a frustrating junkie one moment, a pitifully lost soul the next. Bale’s performance and the script succeed at creating an engaging and heartbreaking personality, especially during a scene in which Dicky runs into Sugar Ray Leonard at one of Micky’s fights in Las Vegas. Leonard plays himself in this scene, and Bale brings out the desperate longing in Dicky for his happier past when he tells Leonard, “I know I brought you down,” and asks “Can I call you?” Leonard is polite but uninterested, and the sad conversation is witnessed by Alice, who hovers over her son as his fiercest protector.
Melissa Leo sparkles as the gritty Alice—a multi-layered character who adores her family but doesn’t hesitate to snap at her daughter because she “owes [me] two hundred dollars.” One of the most touching scenes in the film is when Alice goes to Dicky’s house, and he jumps out of a window to avoid her seeing him high on crack. Dicky’s fall is broken by—symbolically—a pile of trash, and his subsequent interaction with Alice is gut-wrenching. It becomes apparent that Alice is not quite as oblivious to Dicky’s condition as she lets on, and her feelings are evident by the expression on her face, which shifts from anger to disappointment to painful despair. At first, not a word is spoken, but no dialogue is necessary—Leo and Bale execute the silent, powerful scene so skillfully that the emotions and the history between the characters are perfectly clear.
The relationship between Alice and Micky is equally complex and strained. Alice wants Micky’s career to succeed, but she refuses to admit that Dicky might be hindering its progress. Although Micky is attached to his brother and values his dedication and boxing-related wisdom, he is justifiably fed up with Dicky’s addiction and its resulting problems—especially when Dicky’s advice causes him to lose a fight. But he won’t cast Dicky aside, even when a friend suggests that he “let go and let God.” Micky is incessantly reminded that family comes first, and while he dutifully adheres to this philosophy, it causes him mental anguish that is portrayed with quiet, seething intensity by the talented Mark Wahlberg.
It is only when Micky finds a new girlfriend, Charlene (Amy Adams) that he begins to separate from his suffocating family bonds. Charlene is a brazen bartender who encourages Micky to pursue his career without Alice’s and Dicky’s influence, which puts Micky in the middle of a clash between his brother, his sisters, Alice, and Charlene.
Although the change in Micky’s character that Charlene evokes is necessary to progress the narrative, her character is the weakest in the cast. This flaw is not related to Adams’s performance—which is solid—but is due entirely to the script. Charlene’s toughness, while sometimes admirable, is usually so overdone as to make her unappealing. A scene in which Micky assaults a bar patron who “disrespects” Charlene seems contrived, and her brashness toward Micky’s family is off-putting and not entirely believable. Her interactions with Micky’s sisters also do not ring true, as the sisters are unfortunately portrayed as caricatures.
Charlene is mostly one-dimensional until later in the film, when her character suddenly becomes more developed and sympathetic. This happens during a pivotal scene in which Micky professes that he wants Dicky to be his trainer again, and that he also wants Charlene in his life. She tells him that this wasn’t “the deal” and storms off, only to be followed by Dicky, who shows his love for Micky by offering to give up training him if Charlene will come back. Adams and Bale handle this important, tense scene with precision, and the wounded look on Charlene’s face when Dicky asks “What have you ever done with your life?” invigorates and brings much-needed depth to her character. Her motivations, and her desire to make something of herself by helping Micky, are finally clear. This desire to succeed is shared by Dicky and Micky, whose struggles to achieve their goals against harsh and difficult obstacles are inspirational.
The Fighter is not merely a boxing movie. It is a compelling film about faith, perseverance, redemption, family, and love that deserves its accolades and Oscars.
The DVD includes informative and interesting interviews with the director, the producers, Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Micky Ward, Dicky Eklund, and other members of the Ward-Eklund family. These interviews are an excellent supplement to the movie and reveal the long and troubled road that led to the film’s production. They also describe Wahlberg’s four-year preparation for his role, and how Christian Bale came to be cast as Dicky through a chance encounter with Wahlberg. Seeing the real Dicky Eklund reinforces the strength of Bale’s performance and his incredible interpretation of Eklund’s voice and mannerisms.