In certain respects David O. Russell’s boxing drama The Fighter is a sports movie masquerading as an Oscar grab. It bears many of the hallmarks of awards ponies that are often trotted out this time of year: It’s set in a working-class town (Lowell Massachusetts) in the midst of demographic upheaval; one of its lead actors Christian Bale put his health at risk so that he might realistically portray the corrosive effects of crack addiction; its director took great care to stock it with an abundance of auteurist flourishes; its poster is suitably understated; and its initial theatrical release is extremely limited (only four cities). But underneath The Fighter’s prospecting facade beats the heart of a determined crowd-pleaser -- a triumphant underdog tale of an aging boxer who overcame long odds to reach the pinnacle of his sport -- that cannot be suppressed.
The structure of The Fighter which is based on the true story of doormat-turned-champion “Irish” Micky Ward reflects its director’s conflicting impulses. The film is roughly divided into two parts the first of which is fashioned almost purely as a showcase for Bale who portrays Ward’s half-brother Dicky Eklund a once-promising welterweight who long ago squandered his talent on a drug habit that none of his family members seem willing to acknowledge.
Balding emaciated and nearly toothless Dicky bristles with boundless (and no doubt chemically enhanced) energy strutting through town and boasting incessantly of his exploits -- his 1978 knockdown of Sugar Ray Leonard in particular -- in a voice made raspy by (presumably) vocal chords repeatedly singed by crack smoke. Though officially Micky’s trainer he seems less concerned with his brother’s fight preparation than with promoting his own supposed “comeback ” which he claims an HBO Films crew has been sent to chronicle. In truth they’re making a documentary on crack addiction but Dicky’s delusion is so profound -- and so impervious to reality -- that he fails to recognize it.
Russell is clearly enamored with Bale’s performance -- he all but emblazons the words “For Your Consideration” at the top of the screen during the actor’s scenes -- and as a result he grants his actor too long of a leash. Bale dominates every frame in which he appears but sometimes he overreaches and his scene-stealing antics occasionally verge on clownish. (In a pre-emptive strike against those who might dismiss the performance as a prolonged exercise in scenery chewing Russell includes a documentary clip of the real-life brothers during the film’s closing credits and true to Bale’s portrayal Dicky is an unrepentant attention hound.)
Dicky’s losing battle with crack culminates in a harebrained money-raising scheme hatched straight out of the Tyrone Biggums playbook for which he earns a lengthy penitentiary stay. But just as we begin to suspect The Fighter might morph into a gritty addiction memoir the narrative shifts its focus to Micky who after suffering quietly for years under the misguided tutelage of his junkie brother and their domineering mother/manager Alice (Melissa Leo) finally starts to assert himself. With the help of his new girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) a bulldog with a tramp stamp whose foul mouth and stiff upper lip provide the perfect antidote to the machinations of Micky’s mother and seven (!) catty sisters his own (genuine) comeback finally gains momentum.
So does the film. Because of its triumphant second half -- during which Micky ascends through the welterweight ranks in a series of brutal slugfests and eventually upsets a much younger Shea Neary to win his first title -- The Fighter will likely be branded hokey by some but that’s hardly the director’s fault. The story all but demands it. For the most part Russell steers clear of the sentimental tropes seen in films like Cinderella Man and the Rocky saga and he documents every pummeling Micky receives with gruesome buzz-killing detail. But the story’s feel-good aspects like Micky are astoundingly resilient and in the end Russell has no choice but to yield to them.