I can imagine some audiences shying away from The Fighter, reluctant to see a movie about boxing. As a boxing movie, The Fighter is certainly one of the finest I've ever seen. It's a spectacular entertainment that's every bit as rousing as the original Rocky.
But The Fighter is much more than a meager "boxing movie," as some skeptics might label it. The Fighter is also a great character study about family, addiction and ego. It's an incredibly uplifting movie and, at times, a very funny one. There's not an instance in The Fighter where you can sense that the filmmakers have anything less than absolute respect for the art of boxing and the people who inspired this project.
The film takes a traditional underdog story and makes it as fresh as any sports movie of recent memory. The hero of the picture is Mickey Ward, a real-life Irish-American boxer played by Mark Wahlberg. Mickey has the potential to be a contender but is brought down by his dysfunctional family. His mother, played by Melissa Leo, poorly manages him while Dicky, his drug-addicted brother/trainer played by Christian Bale, always forgets to show up to his fights. The most rational person in Mickey's life is Charlene, his girlfriend played by Amy Adams, who motivates him to seek training and management outside his family.
Bale has become an obvious target for satire over the years with his grizzly Batman voice and infamous "Are you a profession" rant. Yet, he has always been one of our most interesting and underrated actors. Here he delivers the pinnacle performance of the film as Dicky, who might have gone on to become a champion had it not been for his crack addiction. He claims HBO is making a documentary about his comeback when the movie is really about the effects of crack. His one major achievement was beating Sugar Ray Leonard in a fight. Dicky holds onto that victory, knowing it is the only highlight of his otherwise ruined life.
Bale practically looks like another person here, with a severe loss of weight, hair and teeth. His performance somewhat resembles Nicolas Cage's role in Leaving Las Vegas. Just as Cage's character was drunk throughout the entirety of that movie, Dicky always appears to be on crack or suffering from the repercussions of the drug. This is a risky role that could have easily misfired in the hands of another performer. As energized as Bale is in The Fighter with his over-the-top mannerisms and speech, he never overacts or strikes a false note as Dicky.
The entire ensemble is nothing short of phenomenal. After doing fine work as a character actress for years, Leo achieved the rank of an A-list star with her Oscar-nominated performance in Frozen River. Here she gives another nomination worthy performance. Adams has based her career on playing innocent, good-hearted people in movies like Junebug, Enchanted and Doubt. In The Fighter she takes an unexpected and outstanding turn as the strong-willed Charlene, who is not afraid to tell off Mickey's mother or get into a fight with one of his white trash sisters.
The supporting cast is so exceptional that at times they outshine Mickey Ward himself, which prevents the character from being in the same league of Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. Nevertheless, Director David O. Russell and screenwriters Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy never forget that this is truly the story of Ward, who we rout for every step of the way. The film's depiction of Mickey Ward, along with the rest of these fascinating individuals, all contribute to making The Fighter one of the best biopics ever made about an athlete or anybody else for that matter.