I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

The Fighter

tn_fighterTHE FIGHTER is another movie about the working class struggle of the underdog boxer, this one based on a true story, developed for years by Darren Aranofsky, finally directed by David O. Russell when Mark Wahlberg realized he’d been in boxing training for 3 or 4 years now and it would be good to start filming at some point. Those are both kinda weird directors for a normal boxing movie, but this is pretty normal, it’s not some radical reinvention of the genre. What makes it fresh though is the focus on the whole family. It’s equally about the fighter, Micky Ward (Wahlberg, BOOGIE NIGHTS) and his half- brother Dickie Eklund (Christian Bale, AMERICAN PSYCHO) and their place in the town of Lowell, Massachusetts.

Dickie is a former contender and now Micky’s trainer, but to be honest it doesn’t seem like his heart is that in it anymore. He spends most of his time pursuing his other passion, smoking crack.

mp_fighterMicky’s got a big fight coming up, but Dickie’s always the center of attention because he’s got a film crew following him around. “HBO’s making a movie about my comeback!” he says, but the documentarians are pretty clear that it’s about crack addiction. (The actual documentary is called HIGH ON CRACK STREET, I’ll have to try to see that one.) Despite his troubles Dickie’s still called “The Pride of Lowell” and never gets tired of bringing up the time he knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard. Knocked him down. Not knocked him out.

Micky’s hotheaded mother (no shit, that was Melissa Leo? I didn’t even recognize her) is his manager. His dad (Jack McGee) seems more level-headed, but is outnumbered by the seven big-haired daughters who take after their mom and work together like a pack of wolves. Dad is kind of like the guy who knows everybody should listen to him but is resigned to the fact that they won’t.

Family is important to all of them so they don’t fire Dickie even though they’re pissed that his outside interests and hobbies (again, crack) interfere so much with Micky’s training, traveling, etc. They try to be all Pride of Lowell, get dressed up and take a limo to the airport before a fight, end up having to make an extra stop to chase Dickie out the back of the crackhouse.

In a way the movie is all about embarrassment. Micky is embarrassed to show his face in Lowell after losing again. Dickie is embarrassed for his mom to find him at the crackhouse. The whole family and town are embarrassed by the documentary. They want the pride back.

It’s also about running away or hiding from problems. Dickie’s always literally jumping out the back window and making a run for it. When Dickie’s in the joint Micky takes the chance to run from his family. He finally shuts out his crazy mom, stays away from the drama, and his career starts to go well. His family hates his new girlfriend (but I don’t, it’s Amy Adams) because she went to college and they think she’s a “skank.” She knows how to hide from her problems too (and hides from the viewers that she’s supposed to have a drinking problem) but she teaches Micky how to face up to shit. For example when the mom and all the sisters track her down and show up on her porch she not only goes out there to face them, she throws the first punch.

In fact it goes back to the very first thing we learn in the movie, when Dickie explains his fighting style as “squirrelly as fuck,” dancing around and dodging, as opposed to Micky getting in close and taking the punches. By the end of the movie I think they learn to stop being squirrelly as fuck about their relationships.

Wahlberg and Bale are both good handsomer Hollywood versions of the real people. Wahlberg is especially impressive in the ring. He and his partners took alot of hits to do the boxing scenes, which is especially noticeable in the last fight where they really seem to be beating the shit out of each other. Bale’s approach is pretty mega, appropriate I think based on the footage of the real Dickie, who obviously has to be the center of attention at all times. Bale also went down to MACHINIST/crackhead weight and shaved a bald spot on the back of his head, although it’s not very noticeable until a ways into the movie.

For personal reasons I choose to believe that the real girlfriend looks exactly like Amy Adams and her hotness is not an exaggeration. Because you gotta be able to believe in something, you know? It’s nice to see Adams getting to play a role that’s not sweet and naive. Good to get back to her CRUEL INTENTIONS 2 roots. Must be tough, though, always getting typecast as good looking.

The other characters are less Hollywood and really well cast. My favorite character is Mickey O’Keefe, the police sergeant who becomes Micky’s trainer. I’ve been telling people for the week or two since I saw this that it seemed like they just got the real guy to play himself, but until just now when I looked it up on wikipedia I didn’t realize that’s because they did just get the real guy. He’s very quiet and emotionally reserved, but throughout the movie you can read on his face the frustration that Micky’s family are getting in the way of his chances, and his genuine, humble loyalty to Micky and wanting to help him. Then when (SPOILER) everything works out and everybody’s jumping up and down happy he barely even smiles, but you can see he’s right there with them.

Leo as the mother reminds me a little bit of the grandma in ANIMAL KINGDOM. She’s much more openly hostile, but seems to have the same motivation of just wanting to be there with her kids no matter what. Maybe she kinda likes being the boss, and maybe she makes the wrong decisions sometimes, but I don’t think she’s a bad person. (I guess I wouldn’t say that about the gal in ANIMAL KINGDOM. I didn’t say they were the same. They just reminded me of each other a little bit).

I also gotta say they got an amazing performance out of a toddler. This tiny kid is supposed to be Dickie’s son, and he has two amazing reactions. One is in a scene where he wants to watch his dad on TV but they won’t let him, one is when his dad just got out of prison and he’s excited to see him, but things don’t go well. It’s weird that the kid doesn’t seem to have aged while Dickie was away, but oh well. The expressions this kid has and the things he does are so perfect it seems like pretty much exactly what they would’ve done if they decided to CGI the whole performance. Shit, maybe they did? It didn’t look like they did. I think they just found the Christian Bale of baby actors.

Or maybe it was Christian Bale. He not only took off weight for this movie, he took off age. He’s gonna have a hell of a time getting back into the right shape and age to play Batman again.

I’ve heard some complaints that this movie is classist or something, that it portrays not-rich people in a cartoonish and stereotypical light. It’s nice for viewers to be offended on behalf of the actual people who worked for years to get their story made into a movie and then worked closely with the production, but I don’t think it’s necessary. If you believe that it’s unfair to depict the women of early ’90s Lowell, Massachusetts as having big hair and being catty I think you’re being a little too sensitive. And whatever the crackhead lobby may say, it is actually true that the individuals of that persuasion are sometimes missing a few teeth. The movie is just reporting the truth when it comes to hair of the early ’90s and dental health of the crackheads.

Also, please take note of the real guys shown at the end of the movie, and tell me with a straight face that the good looking Hollywood versions of them are an unfairly stereotypical portrayal. If all movies portrayed all white people like this that might be a problem, but that’s not the case in my opinion. In INCEPTION the white people wear ties, for example.

By far the most cartoonish character in the movie is a movie buff with a sweater around his neck who says he hears good things about the cinematography in BELLE EPOQUE. And that’s the only guy I felt like I was supposed to hate. I think you gotta acknowledge that the movie ultimately likes all these people. Not in a condescending “isn’t it adorable?” My Name Is Earl type of way, but in a they’re-flawed-but-they’re-my-family type of way. Micky is the protagonist and he’s stuck between the different factions, but he believes they’re all his people. They’re his blood and his neighbors. He wants to be the Pride of Lowell, not the guy who got out. And he wants his brother on his side. He wants to be the Pride of the Pride of Lowell.

THE FIGHTER really got me by having the equivalent of that rare achievement I love in action movies, the simultaneously occurring action and emotional climaxes. I guess you could say that about most sports movies, but I think this one is a little different because (SPOILER?) winning the fight really feels like a supblot, a side issue, an extra bonus. It’s the way all the family drama is resolved that I found myself rooting for and excited about. I’m sure it didn’t wrap up that neatly in real life, but watching the movie I bought it. Consider my heart warmed.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 11th, 2011 at 11:22 pm and is filed under Drama, Reviews, Sport. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

35 Responses to “The Fighter”

  1. I’ll surely be seeing this within the next 72 hours. Until then, I take solace in the fact that Micky Ward has already given me at least a feature length film’s worth of entertainment in his epic fights with Arturo Gatti. YouTube that shit. Classic x 3.

    Is it true Amy Adams has a dirty mouth [*wink*] in this one? Will I have trouble revisiting ENCHANTED after THE FIGHTER?

    I’m just gonna go google Amy Adams and think about my life.

  2. Vern, definitely check out that High on Crack Street documentary. I’m always fascinated by people struggling with addiction, and this film is basically a character study of 3 highly addicted people and their struggles to get clean. And Dickie isn’t even the most interesting part of the film. It’s very hard to watch at times, but you also want to see how it turns out for these folks.

    It also brings up questions about whether they changed a few things around for the storyline in The Fighter.

  3. Man – you nailed this one. Loved it. Spoilers: That last fight – totally agree with you. The thing that got me was Bale’s monologue to Mick before the last round, where he finally owns up to who he is – recognizes all he’s put his brother through and gives him the emotional motivation to do what needs to be done. That is the real story, the fight itself becomes the vehicle for the family’s redemption – the way their individual reactions to his victory are covered.. just blew me away. I thought the movie was way funnier than I was expecting too. Surprised it wasn’t a bigger hit.

  4. Let us not forget the excellent Dropkick Murphys song “The Fighter”, which is about Mickey Ward, and came first.

    A friend of mine from Lowell once told me the only person dumber then Mickey Ward was his older brother. However, to be fair to Mickey, I’ve also heard he’s “the sweetest guy ever”. And reportedly the Ward clan has been practically living at the Lowell AMC 14 since The Fighter opened.

    Mickey Ward could have beaten Jack Kerouac in a fistfight, but Kerouac would have easily drank him under the table. And I suspect Kerouac was just a slightly better writer.

  5. The fun fact of this movie is that they completely make up Mickey Ward’s boxing career. I’m sure a lot of it had to do with not getting cooperation from some of the fighters but they make up opponents for Mikey Ward that he never fought. And, from what I’ve read, Mikey Ward dominated that Shea Neery fight in London.

  6. nabroleon dynamite

    January 12th, 2011 at 8:07 am

    I didn’t like the fights in this movie. The rhythm and speed of a real boxing match wasn’t there at all. Yes the last fight was pretty good, but all the other fights seemed off to me.

    Bale was “Rakim” to Wahlberg’s “Marky Mark”

    No match in that fight…

  7. Did anyone else find it kind of a strange choice that Russell chose to shoot (some of) the fights with TV cameras, making it look sorta like a televised match, except there appeared to be close-ups, angles, sound etc. that wouldn’t normally be visible/audible on TV? I guess it was a novel way to try to visually distinguish his fight scenes from the countless other boxing movies out there, but I did find it occasionally distracting.

    This was the best all-around crowdpleaser I had seen in a good long while, and I was glad to see that Russell’s style (particularly the humor and manic energy) remained in tact, as I was worried he was going to turn in something more generic (since it looked like he was trying to play nice/mainstream after the failure of I HEART HUCKABEES and the whole “calling Lily Tomlin the c-word” incident). It’s a mainstream, formula picture done right: the specific details of the story and characters make the cliches feel fresher, but it can still exploit a strong, sturdy, time-tested structure for maximum audience satisfaction.

    The only part where I felt the film was hampered by this was the final act. OF COURSE the film had to climax with a boxing match, but this one felt particularly perfunctory. Obviously we want Mickey to win, but there’s not much interest in the match itself or the other boxer. The other boxer is given a few throwaway lines that make him sound like a jerk, I guess to further stack the deck in Mickey’s favor with the audience, but its so half-hearted I wondered why the filmmakers even bothered. It’s the one instance where I wish they HAD subverted the film’s classic structure; I would have been happier if, for instance, that boxing match happened, and THEN there was another 20 minutes or so with the characters.

    But oh well. It’s a boxing picture. Has to end with boxing.

  8. Fun Fact: One of the sisters was played by Conan O’Brien’s sister.

  9. Vern, I am from a similarly shitty town in Massachusetts not too far from Lowell and I can assure you this is an accurate presentation of what low-income women (and men) were like in the early nineties. The sisters really seemed like relatives of mine on every level – their looks, indignant and suspicious attitudes and clothing hit almost too close to home.

    One of my favorite things in this movie was how accurate all the Massachusetts stuff was. It really has a great appeal to people from my home state (all my friends absolutely loved it) without ever seeming like a series of Family Guy style in-jokes. Bale’s accent was absolutely astounding and I honestly think his American accent needs work at times. He really gives the half-assed accents in Shutter Island a run for their money.

    My roomate’s father actually knew the real Dickie as a kid (He was some sort of school therapist for him) and I guess he was really notorious at a young age. I’m also glad O. Russell directed this one instead of Aranofsky. He’s got a crowd-pleasing ability to entertain I think few filmmakers have.

    Keep up the good work, Vern!

  10. I think I said it before, but fascinating how in the last decade or so Boston has effectively become Hollywood’s de facto setting for crime/gritty stories.

  11. Gotta be honest, I’ve always considered David O. Russell to be an above-average-but-nothing-special kinda director.

    Flirting with Disaster was okay. Three Kings was fun, but for some reason lots of people went on and on about it like it was some kinda masterpiece, which it’s not. And I Heart Huckabees is pretty enjoyable, but everytime I watch it I think “Why am I watching this when I could be watching a Charlie Kaufman movie?”. Plus, the guy seems like a dick.

    But man, am I excited about seeing this one. Fuckin love a good boxing movie. I think Ali and Cinderella Man are two of the most underappreciated movies of the past decade.

  12. RRA- It’s because they started giving tax breaks to films that shoot in Massachusetts. Suddenly, studios had incentive to bank roll moderately priced Awards and box-office contenders like this or The Town or any of the others. Plenty of films use Massachusetts as an anonymous backdrop for their crap, like Surrogates or Forbidden Kingdom or something, so it’s not like Hollywood has some kind of unifying passion for Boston accents.

  13. Brendan – or for that matter, Boston pictures from before the decade like BOONDOCK SAINTS and FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE and MONUMENT AVE., etc.

  14. I came out of this really wanting to see a companion movie about Arturo Gatti and his lead up to the fight with Ward that ends the film. Then a whole movie can be made about the last two fights and what happened afterwords. The Micky Ward story is great, but as a fighter he is forvever defined by Gatti. Of course, shit got more interesting (and terrible) with Gatti after the fights. I know it would never happen, but a guy can dream.

    If you haven’t see those fights, seek them out. Just two men beating the living shit out of each other for honor, and neither one ever giving an inch.

  15. Scotty: Lemme guess: Lawrence, MA?

    Brendan: Hey, man, excuse me….Y’know, some readers of this site may have worked on SURROGATES. Some may have worked hard and got paid well on SURROGATES….

    It wasn’t just the tax breaks though–it was also partly because for so long, so few films had actually shot here. (or Massachusetts, or even in New England). There was a brief period where some big budget movies shot from about ’69 to maybe ’75, but they all ran into such horrendous problems that studios grew very wary of location filming here. LOVE STORY, THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, JAWS, and THE BRINKS JOB were I think the films that mainly scared Hollywood away from Boston for a long time–primarily LOVE STORY, JAWS and BRINKS JOB, all of which were nightmare productions. (The Mafia up in Providence, Rhode Island were a major part of the problems, and remained a serious obstacle for filmmaking until well into the 90s. Unlike their counterparts in New York, they didn’t have good relations with Hollywood.)

    So once a lot of that stuff finally got straightened out, Boston was kind’ve this unexplored territory. We had all these great stories waiting to be told, from the mean streets of Southie and Charlestown, to the hallowed halls of MIT and Harvard across the Charles River. I think it’s popularity for crime stories was in part just the novelty factor–everybody had seen so many gritty tales about LA, Chicago, Detroit, New York, even cities like New Orleans and Miami, but nobody had seen many crime films about these particular kind of gangsters in this context.

    Finally, and I honestly think this has to be considered, is that Boston is one of the few cities in America–maybe the only one, really–to have what are kind’ve white ghettos. Dorchester, Southie, Charlestown, they’re all tough neighborhoods full of tough guys who also happen to be white guys. I can just imagine Hollywood freaking out realizing they’d gotten access to the Irish-American equivalent of South Central and East LA, and how Boston crime movies will play in Omaha and Nebraska or something.

  16. Not bashing any of the technical achievments of Surrogates or anything, it’s a well-made picture. But there’s nothing remotely Boston-related about that movie, not so much as a Red Sox cap or someone trying an accent. If you’re going to make me pay to watch another movie star stop another evil plot that concerns robots, again, at least give me some unintentional comedy of Willis mangling his R’s. That would have been worth the price of admission right there.

  17. By the way, Carl Crawford’s an idiot. Suck it, BoSox.

    Go Yankees!

  18. I can’t believe people don’t kill themselves for being Red Sox or Yankees fans.

  19. Lovin’ the new look, Mouth.

  20. I changed it because I was inspired by greatness.

  21. CC – I think Brendan’s point is that Boston movies like THE TOWN or FIGHTER all used their settings as part of the storytelling. “Boston” was essential to the narratives. SURROGATES might as well had been set in L.A. or Kansas City or Knoxville. Didn’t matter.

    Brilliant point on the white getto. Seriously “ghetto” in Hollywood for so long corresponded to…well, minorities. And impoverished whites were down in rural South with the trailer parks.

    Hollywood has found back their white urban ghetto, because lets admit it, what fueled alot of those Hollywood gangster movies of the 30s/50s was the urban white ghettos with Italian, Irish, Polish, Jewish, Slavic populations.

    And damn, I totally forgot to include SOCIAL NETWORK as technically a “Boston” picture too. And its gonna win the Oscar.

  22. Yeah, Social Network too, although I’m always a little surprised by how much emphasis people put on it as a Boston film–I mean, less then half the story is set at Harvard, most of it is in New York or California, and technically Harvard isn’t even IN Boston…Cambridge is actually a seperate city….

  23. RRA: Surrogates was actually originally supposed to be set in Houston, if I remember correctly.

    But they do have Willis ask his wife if she wanted to drive up to the Cape, which I must admit, rang very true in a quiet, understated way. More so then a hell of a lot of movies which go to absurd leangths to establish their characters as authentic Red Sox watching Sam Adams drinking marathon running tricon hat wearing New Englanders. And they have a shot of that wacky futurist building next to the State House downtown, which looks like a cube balanced on a globe.

    And yeah, it’s not even that these neighborhoods are poor districts sunk in crime (most of Charlestown and South Boston are very much working-class, for instance, whose people have full-time jobs, raise their families, and send their kids to school “across tha rivah”). They’re just some of the last authentic enclaves of white urban ethnicity left in this country (even Scorsese’s little Italy has had many of it’s Italians move out since he made Mean Streets). One of the most brilliant things about GOOD WILL HUNTING was that it showed how the groundskeepers, campus police, janitors, cooks, maintenence guys, ect, at Harvard and MIT are mostly taking the T from Southie and then going back at night. And proud to do it, and proud to live in their neighborhoods too. A lot of Bostonians would never want to move out to the suburbs (or move into the city if they were born in Newton or Watertown or whatever). No matter how bad it might be sometimes, it’s where they were born and it’s where they wanna stay.

  24. I think there is a typo near the end Vern, however, I like the typo better than the real word.

    “a supblot, a side issue, an extra bonus.”

    Sounds like a definition to me. I’m using it. Like “‘Sup, blot.”

  25. CC – Its like how SHUTTER ISLAND is considered a Boston movie, yet its not set there but on an island in the cape or something off the state coast.

  26. It’s a “bad Boston accent” movie, that’s for sure. Michelle Williams–good gawd, Tehdee.

    Although I’ll give full credit to the guy from Zodiac. His was pretty spot on.

  27. I laughed so hard everytime Dickie threw himself out the window. Man Bale was so good in this. Like seriously I haven’t seen a performance from him this genuinely strong since Patrick Bateman. As someone who grew up in a crack ridden area it was insane how well he adapted all the crackhead quirks and mannerisms. I really really did not see Christian Bale which is something I can’t really do with him in other roles. As far as I’m concerned it’s the best work of his career and even though I think awards shows are shit he is very much worthy of best supporting actor.

  28. Bale and Leo for the win at the annual hollywood unified masturbation fest. If it means a pay raise for them then they deserve it. Damn good performances.

  29. Late to this, sorry, but this one was hard for me to watch. I can take death and tragedy, but show me an abusive family and that’s too real, man. And they are abusive. I think Vern was too easy on the mom. If you want to kill your sons, then keep going, mom. You’ve had 9 years to manage Mickey and it’s not working. You blew it. And standing by the crackhead? I see it too much, those people that “love” you and want the best for you, but anything good you do for yourself, including your girlfriend, is a threat to them.

    I do agree the film is on the family’s side and that’s why it’s even harder for me. I think you should condemn people who hurt other people, whether intentionally or with “good intentions.”

    Like I said, it’s a good movie for making me feel that way. And it’s nice that Dickie got clean and they learned to get along, but to me that’s a whole lot of work to have basic respect that should exist between any human beings, let alone family. That’s hardcore. So good drama, hard for me to get through to the other side.

  30. So Marky Mark is talking sequel, focusing on the epic, acclaimed Ward/Gotti trilogy of bouts.

    http://www.hollywood.com/news/Mark_Wahlberg_Talks_The_Fighter_2/7768349

    You know….I like it.

  31. This here is multimedia at its best.

    http://canopycanopycanopy.com/11/a_day_s_sail_

    That fairy literary analysis stuff I like, good boxing analysis, great videos, and even a Bruce Lee paraphrasing.

  32. This was a really good movie, I was surprised. I had no interest in seeing it and was kind of annoyed when the girlfriend brought it home to watch, but after 10 minutes of watching Christian Bale the crackhead I was hooked. I agree, easily his best role since AMERICAN PSYCHO and in my opinion it goes beyond and it’s his best work ever. You forget he’s such a fantastic actor when you’re watching him covered up with Bat-armor doing his ridiculous bat-voice.

    I don’t really care for boxing movies but this was obviously an abusive / screwup family movie with boxing as the backdrop. I’m with Ftopel here – it was flat out difficult to watch at times, seeing the mom character taking the crackhead’s side, attacking her good son with guilt, etc.

    I’m with Vern on the police officer trainer guy too. Great character.

  33. Finally saw this. It’s great, though I have to wonder with as noted it really being more about the mending of a family than the boxing, why doesn’t the thing with Mickey and his ex wife and daughter have a payoff? True or not, she’s the cliche movie ex-wife, and is depicted as cartoonishly spitefull, especially with the scene where they find out the truth about Mickie’s movie, which itself is something that would only happen in a movie. Nobody found out the name of the thing when they looked up the time it would be on in the tv listings, and none of the documentarianists(tm) interviewed Mickie’s family about his crack addiction when making it?

  34. ^Dickie’s movie/family. Stupid unimaginative Massachusetts parents.

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