Once more, as in "The Wrestler," we have in our midst a movie about fighting as – what else? – metaphor. To its credit, unlike "The Wrestler," the metaphor often takes a back seat to the fighting, though not nearly enough for my taste. (For me, the best fight movie of the year remains Frederick Wiseman's documentary "Boxing Gym," where the fighting isn't a metaphor for anything – it's simply fighting.)
Wahlberg's "Irish" Micky Ward is a junior welterweight from Lowell, Mass., whose career, as managed by his scabrous mom Alice (Melissa Leo) and cokehead trainer and older half brother Dicky Eklund (Bale), is rocky (and "Rocky") at best. Dicky is both Micky's idol and nemesis. Ravaged as he is, he still knows more about boxing than just about anybody else. What he doesn't begin to know is how to manage his own life.
Before he became a habitué of crack houses, Dicky was himself a contender who fought memorably against Sugar Ray Leonard. Now he's being followed around by an HBO documentary crew for what we are initially led to believe is a movie about his "comeback" but is actually an installment in a series on lives wrecked by drugs.
Russell, along with his screen-writers, Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson, keeps all these characters in a perpetual state of hectic imbalance. The fighters' knockabout lives are all of a piece inside and outside the ring.
Micky and Dicky never quite know from moment to moment where the next punch will be coming from, but we do. That's because we've already seen many of the boxing movies – from "The Set-Up" and "Somebody Up There Likes Me" to "Rocky" and "Raging Bull" – that "The Fighter" draws on.
Because so many of those movies are so enjoyable, "The Fighter" is not without its pedigreed pleasures. Russell films Micky's ascent up the boxing ladder as a series of face-offs with the no-frills immediacy of cable TV smackdowns. He saves the best, the title shot, for last. (What he leaves out entirely are the subsequent historic trilogy of fights against Arturo Gatti that constitute Micky's homeboy legend.)
Whenever "The Fighter" moves away from the ring, it loses its bearings – and its verity. Micky's extended family, beginning with his mother, is a screeching caricature of working-class discombobulation. His seven sisters, for example, are a recurring Greek chorus of chain-smoking couch potatoes.
As a fighter, Micky was known for taking great punishment in the ring before going on the offensive and unleashing his lethal left hook, but he's no match for the women in his family. This chink in his armor could have been funny, but was it necessary to make the women so annoyingly obtuse? Since when is "blue collar" synonymous with "stunted"?
Dicky is equally annoying, despite Bale's full-on performance, because his mania never varies. Wahlberg's good-guy proletarian routine is also unchanging. Like Micky, Wahlberg is a counterpuncher performer, and because he's surrounded by a gaggle of high-flying overactors, he tends to recede into the scenery.
Only Amy Adams, playing Micky's tough-tender girlfriend Charlene, manages to be convincingly working-class without seeming either dopey or rabid or strung-out. Not many actresses could play with equal success a wide-eyed Disney princess (in "Enchanted") and, as she does here, a tough-cookie bar hostess. She has become an actress of remarkable range.
A cross between a boxing biopic and a paean to working-class heroism, "The Fighter" doesn't quite make the weight class in either category.
The filmmakers are so intent on deifying Micky that they never stop to question whether all those beatings he received and handed out were worth the human cost.
His life has been retrofitted into the Hollywood legend machine. Grade: B- (Rated R for language throughout, drug content, some violence, and sexuality.)
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