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.
Based on H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger's bestselling book of the same name Friday Night Lights tells the true story of the dusty West Texas town of Odessa where nothing much happens until September rolls around. That's when the town's 20 000 or so denizens pour into Ratliff Stadium the country's biggest high school football field every Friday night to watch the Permian Panthers Odessa's "boys in black " take to the field. All the town's hope and dreams are pinned on the padded shoulders of these young gridiron heroes--including insecure quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black); cocky self-assured running back Boobie Miles (Derek Luke); headstrong self-destructive tailback Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) who must contend with an overbearing abusive dad (Tim McGraw--yes that Tim McGraw the country singer); and the team's spiritual leader middle linebacker Ivory Christian (newcomer Lee Jackson). The Panthers begin their season with one thing on their minds--winning their fifth straight championship for the first time in the team's 30-year history--but for their coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) it also means instilling a love and joy of the game in the boys' hearts amidst tremendous pressures and expectations. Easier said than done.
There isn't a false note in any of the performances and no one falls back on clichéd versions of their characters as is so easy to do in rah-rah sports movies. Thornton does a particularly good job as Gaines keeping you guessing whether he's going to be a hardass insensitive to his players' emotional needs (like so many movie football coaches before him) or if he truly means to coach his boys in a fair and decent way. Gaines too has to deal with his own pressures especially from the townsfolk who are likely to string him up if the team loses the championship. As for Gaines' players Black (the oh-so-serious kid from Thornton's Sling Blade) is all grown up and buffed out and still very serious. It works for the young actor though as the beleaguered Winchell struggles with the love-hate relationship he has with his chosen sport. Other standouts include Luke (Antwone Fisher) as the star player Boobie whose cocksureness leads him to an injury; Hedlund as the volatile Billingsley trying desperately to please his father; and McGraw making his film debut as the father a former Permian Panther champion who sure hasn't given up his competitive spirit basically beating it into his son. First Faith Hill (McGraw's real-life wife) in The Stepford Wives and now McGraw--who knew country singers could act?
From All the Right Moves to Varsity Blues to Remember the Titans Friday Night Lights unfortunately doesn't completely distinguish itself from the pack of football movies before it--like those this is all about how the young players--be they underdogs second-string nobodies or stars--rising above the mounting pressure and playing the best they can bless their hearts. Still there's no question the sports genre--particularly football--always gets the juices pumping with FNL being no exception. It might have something to do with our sick fascination with watching bone-crunching hits and body-punishing tackles. It's dangerous out there for these guys; no other sport (besides maybe hockey) can elicit such wince-inducing emotion and actor/director Peter Berg (The Rundown) exploits that. Obviously influenced by Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday Berg effectively paints his own gritty documentary-style picture of the competitive sport without relying on too many trite gushy over-the-top moments. And to give it credit the film does not necessarily have a feel-good "let's win one for the Gipper" ending; it is based on a true story after all and as we know real life isn't all sunshine and roses especially in the bloodthirsty world of Texas high school football.