By: Roxana Hadadi
If someone could just give Christian Bale an Oscar already, that would be great.
It’s clearly obvious that “The Fighter” wouldn’t have worked without Bale. As Dicky Eklund, the crack-addicted former boxer and older half-brother of struggling fighter Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), Bale is haunting, gaunt and spastic and zany and unforgettable. Equally enthusiastic about talking up his most famous fight – a 10-round bout against Sugar Ray Leonard during which Sugar Ray either was knocked down by Dicky or slipped, depending on who is telling the story – as he is haunted by it, Dicky knows his shot at greatness has passed. It’s on Micky, then, that he places his aspirations – and the family’s financial burden.
And Wahlberg, who has said he’s been secretly training for “The Fighter” for years and is friends with the real Micky, holds his own, too. He’s brawny, conflicted and passionate, effectively capturing the various emotions driving Micky during both his failures and successes. As he tries to navigate his own family’s expectations while also attempting to ensure his own future, you can feel Micky fighting back against the world around him – and audiences shouldn’t be surprised that with his performance, Wahlberg isn’t taking any prisoners.
The film begins with the brothers strolling through the streets of run-down textile town Lowell, Mass., in the early ‘90s, with Dicky boasting that an HBO film crew is following him around to document his boxing comeback. Micky’s trying to make a straight living by paving roads, but Dicky acts like the king of the town, kissing women on the mouth, garnering applause and drawing great glee from his nickname, “The Pride of Lowell.” And he’s the focus of the family, too, headed by mother Alice (a fantastically detestable Melissa Leo) and rounded out by seven sisters. The nine kids are from three different dads, but Dicky is their king – so close to fame years before, he’s their de facto leader, despite his constant absences to go get high in a run-down crackhouse on the other side of town.
Micky can’t live in his brother’s shadow his whole life, though, and from the moment he meets sassy bartender Charlene (Amy Adams, in an impressively steely turn), he begins to make moves to assert himself. Following a disastrous fight with a guy 18 pounds heavier than he is that he only completes because Dicky and Alice need the money, Micky decides to distance himself from them – instead turning to Charlene, a former college athlete who dropped out because she was partying too hard but who genuinely cares for Micky’s success; his father George (Jack McGee), who has been overpowered for too long by Alice’s domineering, aggressive personality; and trainer Mickey O’Keefe, also a local police sergeant (played by himself) who cares about the brothers but recognize Dicky’s poor influence.
Whether he creates a new family to replace his old one or finds a way to balance Alice and Dicky in his life is what drives the drama of the film – oh, and the fighting does too, of course. With Micky’s last shot at becoming a respected fighter coming fast, the film becomes a fight against all odds, against both a family leaning too heavily on one member to obtain financial security for all of them and a doubtful public that can’t seem to believe anything good could come from someone associated with Dicky Eklund.
The film gets right what it needs to: The depressing, stark moments are just that, while the triumphant ones soar as well as those in “Rocky” or “Ali.” Much of the credit can go to Bale, Leo, Wahlberg and Adams, who fit neatly into their roles. Leo and Adams are especially good at facing off: The former is utterly despicable, worshiping Dicky while ignoring his flaws and trying to control Micky when he starts a relationship with Charlene, who seems calm enough until she deliciously punches one of Dicky’s trash-talking sisters in the face. Then there’s Wahlberg as Micky, whose confidence in his own fighting ability grows as he understands the relationship Dicky has to play in his life. And what more can be said about Bale as Dicky? From when he’s getting high and ignoring his family commitments to going through withdrawal in prison and realizing his shortcomings as a father and brother, the man owns this film.
And though it’s rated R, “The Fighter” shouldn’t be too overwhelming for most older teens. The fighting is brutal – splattered blood, body and head shots – but it’s the drug use that is more emotionally affecting, with Dicky’s horribly dirty teeth, his fellow drug addicts’ poor hygiene and their awful living conditions. There’s also a steady flow of cursing and some sexual content – there isn’t an explicit sex scene between Micky and Charlene, but there is making out in the bed with just underwear on.
It’s not surprising that “The Fighter” is leading in Golden Globe nominations, and it won’t be surprising if Bale and Wahlberg get Oscar nods, either. A feel-good holiday flick for the whole family isn’t this film, but for parents and older teens, “The Fighter” is certainly a winner.