The true tale of the early years of legendary fighter 'Irish' Micky Ward (Wahlberg), who triumphed over a complex family situation, including a crack-addict brother/trainer (Bale), to become a welterweight boxing champ in the 1980s.
'Gritty' and 'urban' seem to be two words very much back in vogue over the San Pellegrino and sarnies in Hollywood’s pitch meetings of late. Maybe it’s something to do with the slow-motion financial catastrophe, but filmmakers seem to be looking to the blue-collar heartland for dramatic inspiration. The Town put Ben Affleck in the less salubrious end of Boston, Russell Crowe found himself similarly hanging round a region of Pittsburgh without a Starbucks in The Next Three Days. And now Mark Wahlberg has found a Massachusetts ghetto to punch his way out of.
But while The Fighter, for its first hour or so, might look like a kind of grim inner-city parable — crack-addicted brothers living on the fumes of old dreams, hatchet-faced mothers exploiting their son’s pugilistic ambitions against a background of bar-fights and asphalt — underneath it’s impossible not to discern the throaty roar of a six-cylinder Hollywood engine. This is a rousing, masterly assemblage of rags-to-riches, triumph-over-the-odds, hopes-and-dreams-hanging-on-one-big-fight boxing movie clichés.
It’s also the most uplifting, exuberant fun you’re likely to have at the movies this year. The comparison is inevitable, so let’s get it over with: The Fighter is Rocky for this millennium.
Christian Bale is more than likely to get an Oscar nod for his portrayal of Dickie, Micky’s former champ brother and trainer whose drug habit lands him first in an HBO documentary about sports idols fallen to the crack pipe (he’s under the deluded impression they’re making a celebratory programme about his long-delayed comeback) and then in jail, and he’ll deserve it. But this is Wahlberg’s movie. His collaboration with David O. Russell, surely one of the most unexpected in recent Hollywood history, has finally borne uncontroversial fruit — and among the film’s pleasures is the news that Russell, as well as having a handle on the quirky, can also conjure the sensibilities of a robust storyteller with a sure feel for sucrose-free sentiment.
This is essentially the story of a boxer boxed-in, on one side by the limited possibilities offered by life in working-class Lowell, Massachusetts, and on all remaining sides by his family: this is a guy fighting out of the ring as much as he is in it. Wahlberg seems to be coming to realise that he’s at his best not as an action star but when he lets his guard down, and particularly when playing family dramas — The Yards, Four Brothers, Boogie Nights — he can be a revelation. (He’s also an impressive comic actor when he lets himself do it — this year’s The Other Guys was an inexplicably underrated hoot and much of his appeal in Scorsese’s Departed was as potty-mouthed comic relief.)
If Bale does get the Oscar nod at Wahlberg’s expense, it’ll be difficult not to feel as you did for Tom Cruise in Rain Man; like Cruise, he quietly gives a believable, restrained performance while his co-star launches a thespian blitzkrieg right next to him. But after Bale’s spectacular rockets have fallen to earth, the performance that stays with you is Wahlberg’s: a rueful shrug towards the camera in the very final shot as he’s elbowed out of the limelight by his brother yet again reveals a guy used, at least once upon a time, to being eclipsed by his siblings. After all, in real life he grew up with eight of them. He’s the bruised heart of the movie, and this is a movie with a very big heart indeed.
The Fighter might tread the well-worn route of almost every sports movie before it, but two very different but equally powerful performances combine to deliver an exhilarating fight-flick that, like its scrappy central character, is impossible not to root for.