“The Fighter” Is A Knockout

Sports movies have always been risky propositions for film studios. Too often they are both box office disappointments and the objects of critics’ derision. Boxing films have managed, for the most part, to avoid the sports film jinx as is evidenced by “The Champ,” “Rocky” and “Raging Bull.” You can add another title to that successful list, “The Fighter.”

By the early 1990s,  Lowell, Massachusetts was yet another New England/Rust Belt town that was enduring economic distress as the factories that had made it a major American manufacturing center had nearly all been shut down. As historically has been the case in hard-pressed areas, sports, and boxing in particular, was seen as a way out of the poverty cycle.

Massachusetts was the home state of one of the greatest pugilists of all-time, Rocky Marciano. Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) was no Marciano but he was known as “The Pride of Lowell” for managing to knock down Sugar Ray Leonard in a 1978 fight. Fast forward to 1993 and Dicky, retired as a boxer, is now training his younger half-brother, Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) to be a prize fighter. Dicky, though, has his share of problems with the biggest one being an addiction to crack. It is that drug dependency that leads to run-ins with the law and a stint in prison.

Micky is a very low-key, even-keeled type, and that personality trait is a major asset given his dysfunctional family. Aside from dealing with Dicky, his mother, Alice (Melissa Leo) is not exactly the most maternal of parents. She is a chain-smoking, foul-mouthed woman who also serves as Micky’s manager. While Alice certainly roots for her son to win in the ring, she will think nothing of booking him for mismatches where his opponents either are way too experienced or are from a bigger weight class if it means getting a 15 to 20 grand payday. It is this type of mismanagement that has promoters seeing Micky as a “stepping stone” for other fighters rather than as a contender even though he has championship-caliber talent.

Micky’s other major trouble with Alice is something a lot of guys have experienced; the friction between his iron-willed mom and his equally determined girlfriend. Charlene (Amy Adams) is a bright young lady who resents how Alice has used Micky for short-term financial gain and calls her out for it. The confrontation scene between Micky and Charlene vs. Alice and Micky’s sisters is scarier than the ring action in the film which is very realistic.

Mark Wahlberg, who also serves the film’s producer, is very credible as a boxer. He is also a generous actor as he willingly allows his co-stars to dominate. Amy Adams shows a far different side than we’ve seen as the smart albeit underachieving Charlene. Melissa Leo will certainly be nominated for a barrage of supporting actress awards starting with next month’s Golden Globes. It is Christian Bale however who steals the film as Dicky Eklund. Bale normally plays closed-mouth characters but his Dicky is an outgoing life of the party, whether he be in the gym, a crack house or prison. Bale’s Dicky comes across as a mix Michael Richard’s “Kramer” character and Sirius XM and former WFAN air personality Chris “Mad Dog” Russo.

“The Fighter” gets the little things right by having HBO Sports play a large role here including the use of their terrific boxing commentators, Jim Lampley and Larry Merchant, who in fact called a lot of the real Micky Ward’s fights on that premium cable network. Director David O. Russell and Mark Wahlberg must have called in a lot of favors because HBO is owned by Time Warner while “The Fighter” is being released by Paramount Pictures, a division of rival Viacom.

“The Fighter” is a knockout of a movie.

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