The 2010 blockbuster and critics’ darling, “The Fighter”, won Academy Awards for best supporting actor (an astounding Christian Bale) and best supporting actress (the masterful Melissa Leo). However, I hate boxing movies, especially the tawdry “doormat turned boxing champion” variety we have seen in movies like “Rocky”. This movie, however, is more in the genre of “Raging Bull” or “Million Dollar Baby”, movies in which “boxing” is a metaphor for the volatility of punches that life can throw to anyone, especially the underdog.
This time around the story is about Irish American Micky Ward, an actual boxing hero in working-class Boston during the 1990’s. Mark Wahlberg, who both directs and plays the role of Micky Ward, has said he was inspired by the local fighter and determined to tell his story on the silver screen. And the story is a remarkable one.
There are actually two stories in one: Micky’s story as the welterweight boxer who dreams of the championship, and the story of his half-brother, Dicky Eklund (spellbindingly played by Christian Bale), who could have been a champion but checked out of the competition because of a fierce drug habit that none of his family can deal with.
Dicky’s story dominates during the first half of “The Fighter”. Balding, skeletal, and nearly toothless, Dicky brags incessantly of his championship fighting, particularly against Sugar Ray Leonard in 1978, and dreams of a comeback while training Micky for upcoming fights in the bowels of the boxing league. Dicky’s self-deception is so profound — and so impervious to reality — that he fails to recognize who he really has become. Christian Bale justifiably won the best supporting actor’s role for his scene-stealing performance. The impeccable supporting cast includes Melissa Leo as the heartbreaking, shrewish mother and Amy Adams as Dicky’s feisty girlfriend. Without Mark Wahlberg’s understated acting, which is the foundation for Christian Bale’s, the latter would have seemed over-the-top or overreaching.
The story in the second half of the film now shifts to Micky’s ordeal as he slugs his way to the top, in spite of his dysfunctional family and his mother’s lack of interest in his success. Melissa Leo plays the mother with a wickedness in which the unrecognized damage she has done to her younger son creeps into her face with horror and unflinching sorrow as she finally realizes what she has done to him (and to Dicky). It’s like viewing the scene of an accident.
“The Fighter” appeals to the viewer on several levels. It is a boxing film, but doesn’t need to be. It is a film that taps into the narcissistic archetypal mother whose impact on her children is grotesque. And most of all, it is a story of choices we all face–some at the expense of those we love–in order to move on to another stage in life. The everyman underdog’s desperation sometimes requires stripping delusions of what family can and cannot do for you. We can understand why both his mother and half-brother imprison Micky and why he can’t turn his back on his brother. “What passion doesn’t blind, it opens the eyes and mind.” For Micky that isn’t possible until his girlfriend (played in an elusively simple way by the talented Amy Adams) reveals the true dynamics of his family.
The film is not without its shortcomings, but I think all boxing films are prey to these flaws, even while telling a story based on fact. For one, the scenes of the family clan that includes seven young sisters to Micky and Dicky, do not integrate well and sometimes verge on the melodramatic and unbelievable, truth or not. Still, every scene between the two brothers is riveting and hints at the exculpatory. The love that they feel for each other, even when they realize its destructive nature, is palpable and desolate. The not-so-simple lesson they both learn is that, even if you run away from your family, they are always with you.