The Fighter is the latest effort from controversy magnet David O’Russell. Although he may be best known to the general public as being a brief viral sensation thanks to an expletive filled diatribe aimed at Lily Tomlin on the set of I Heart Huckabees . However, I have loved him since his work on the subversive, chatty, and also-Mark Whalberg filled Three Kings.
In a lot of ways, The Fighter is best interpreted through the lens of someone who has seen and loved most of O’Russell’s movie, and it is also, coincidentally, one of the best movies in his wheelhouse. It uses the boxing/true life underdog story troupes masterfully to tell a story that is purely O’Russell. See the trademark witty dialogue, deeply flawed and interesting characters, and add in a dash of Lowell, Massachusetts flavor, and you get a movie that feels at once worn (unless this is an oscar-winning Clint Eastwood movie, most sports films end one way and one way only) and invigorated, as though the freedom from subverting plot cliches allowed O’Russel to delve so deeply into his characters that the actors seem alive to an extent that even the most talented among them has been missing lately.
So let’s talk about those actors, shall we? We’ll start with the most obvious: Christian Bale. To say I am a fan of Christian Bale’s work is a pretty huge understatement. I’ve seen nearly every film he’s ever made, and as such I know exactly how much range and depth he has in him. He’s a chameleon of a character actor trapped within the body of Batman. Early in his career (or earlier, at least) he played this for all its worth in the fantastically bloody American Psycho, but his ability has transcended work in far less showy films as well (Rescue Dawn, Swing Kids, Empire of the Sun, Laurel Canyon, to name a few). However, over the past three or so years, he’s mostly been relegated to bringing over-serious gravitas to action films of varying degrees of interest.
What The Fighter does for Christian Bale, and this is kind of surprising given that he plays a semi-emaciated crack addict whose emotional journey is the hinge on which the plot rests, is allow him to be the comedic relief. Sure, this is dark-as-dark comedy, but the ability to loosen up and swagger about the screen with the convoluted rhythms of a hyperactive ex-boxer really allows Bale to shine in a way he hasn’t for the past couple of films.
As for the rest of the cast, Mark Whalberg puts his marky mark abs to good use, but mostly he brings a quiet, muted heart to the film. If we don’t believe in Whalberg’s Mickey, in his love for his family, love for his self, and love for boxing, then we don’t buy the movie, period. And Whalberg gives a career best leading performance by allowing his rage, and hurt and promise to simmer beneath the surface. Playing a kid from Massachusetts who almost, but not quite, let’s rage and drugs and a crappy childhood override his promise isn’t exactly a stretch for the kid (seriously, read his biography on wikipedia sometime. It’s fascinating stuff), but Whalberg never seems like the caricature that Andy Samberg once captured so nicely as, “Hey goat, did you see that movie the perfect storm, goat? I was in that movie. Did you like that movie goat? Say hello to your mother for me, okay?”
But the true super star of the bunch is Amy Adams, who manages to play “that woman Charlene” with a street smart intensity that seems surprising from a woman who once completely embodied a live action Disney Princess. Although her part is not quite as showy as some of the others in the film, its her mouthy, tough-as-nails Charlene whose the fuel on the fire of this film.
Of course, The Fighter is NOT by any means a perfect film. As said before, it follows the boxing movie cliches a little too closely, and it might have been easier to take had the film always seemed in control of its own hackneyed antics. On top of that, the last fifteen minutes, Mickey’s crowning glory, are cheesy, even if you (like me) are so invested at this point of the film that you’re clapping as though Mickey can hear your support. It’s as though O’Russell spent so much energy crafting these characters and actors perfectly that he simply lost energy in putting the same verisimilitude into the final 15 minutes.
But that’s okay. To an extent, The Fighter works because of and in spite of these flaws. It is absolutely a showcase for Whalberg, Adams and Bale, and on top of that a rousing success story told very, very well.