Review: The Fighter

In "The Fighter," Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg deliver the exact kind of performances that we've come to expect from the two actors: Bale throwing himself into a role with terrifying physicality, and Wahlberg equating serious drama with high-pitched whispering.

“How you like me now?!”

So wails Kelvin Swaby, James Brown-emulating lead vocalist for The Heavy, in the most prominently featured track in David O. Russell’s boxing drama “The Fighter.” Swaby’s cry is repeated across the film, from the extraordinary credits sequence, featuring brothers Dickie Eklund and Mickey Ward strutting down the streets of their down-and-out hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts, to the aftermath of some of stepping stone Mickey’s more surprising victories. The phrase serves as a kind of motto for the two siblings: Dickie, a motor-mouthed crackhead and former boxer convinced he’s still on the comeback trail, and Mickey, a punching bag of a fighter who nonetheless carries an incredible knockout blow. It’s the rallying cry of an underdog with the swagger of a champ.

But of course, the line could equally serve as a personal “fuck you” from the director himself. Russell has been the enfant terrible of the American independent scene for the past 15 years, producing work (“Flirting with Disaster,” “Three Kings,” “I Heart Huckabees”) that runs the gamut from reviled to acclaimed, and often when you’re talking about the same film; though it’s always difficult to tell whether reactions to his work are based on the films themselves or Russell’s reputation. Well-documented conflicts on set with George Clooney, Lily Tomlin and others, and a famously fiery temper have kept the studios from knocking, and it was probably only Russell’s close friendship with Mark Wahlberg that got “The Fighter” made. And, against all odds, the director has produced his most mainstream fare yet, enough so even to please the Academy and plunge headlong into the Best Picture race. But, underdog though he may be, Russell is nothing without the swagger. So, “how you like me now?” indeed.

The critical spin on “The Fighter” has been, for some reason, to claim that the film is not so much “a boxing movie,” but a tight character drama, which of course automatically makes it superior to every other movie involving boxing ever. Because, you know, “Raging Bull” was just about Robert De Niro punching people, and “Million Dollar Baby” was just a remake of “The Next Karate Kid.” I’m sorry, but when all your family drama and character conflict gets magically resolved in time to focus on a climactic 10-minute title bout? That’s a boxing movie.

And as such, “The Fighter” is smooth and gripping enough, thanks in large part to the strength of the acting ensemble and the mesmerizing work of Christian Bale and Melissa Leo as Dickie and Alice Ward (the domineering family matriarch and Mickey’s manager), respectively. These are showy roles, but it is the strength of these two actors that keep the characters from devolving into caricature. Dickie is a half-delusional layabout of comical proportions, but Bale finds the man’s humanity in his passion and expertise at boxing and fleeting moments of haunting self-recognition, all while eerily capturing the cadence and body language of the real-life Dickie Eklund (stick around for the closing credits to get a glimpse of the actual Ward clan, who were often present on the Lowell set for Russell’s film). Alice’s part is underwritten, but Leo delivers what’s given to her with the right mix of compulsive controlling and righteous indignation.

Alice and Dickie form Mickey’s entourage, but not a very effective one: Mickey is continually thrown into mismatches and humiliated. His life starts to turn around when he meets Charlene (Amy Adams), a tough-talking bartender who encourages Mickey to pursue what’s truly best for his career. It’s time for a classic family vs. lover battle! A tried and true Hollywood conflict, where “The Fighter” hardly breaks new ground, but delivers convincingly enough. Amy Adams is allowed to cast aside her usual timid persona, clashing with Alice and her brood (an absurdly hive-minded gaggle of Dickie and Mickey’s 7 sisters) and spewing forth some *gasp* salty language. It’s almost like she’s playing a real person instead of an angelic naive waif! Gosh, what range.

I’m being harsh. Adams is fine. As is Mark Wahlberg as the blandly earnest Mickey. “The Fighter” ends up as not much more than a satisfying genre entertainment, notable for Bale and Leo’s scene-stealing and a few places where Russell’s talent bursts through the fairly repetitive and predictable material. Besides the raw energy of the opening credits, there’s a wonderful sequence juxtaposing Dickie shadow-boxing a fellow addict in a crackhouse with footage of his treasured fight with Sugar Ray Leonard. Russell’s soundtrack choices in particular are excellent; besides the inspired decision to make “How You Like Me Now?” the film’s unofficial anthem, the film’s most effective training montage (there’s about 3 of them, natch) is set to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Strip My Mind.”

So, to cap things off, let’s answer Russell’s question: how do I like him now? Eh. Like with Christopher Nolan and “Inception,” this is hardly the filmmaker’s boldest or most innovative work, but it’s nice to see the former outsider getting some mainstream recognition. “The Fighter” ties up its emotional conflicts a little too cleanly to match its ambitions of fitting a gritty character drama inside a glossy genre piece, but it’s a solid work with occasional flashes of some truly special talent.

Now playing in theaters.

Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars

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