Saturday, January 15, 2011

645 - The Fighter review

“The Fighter” is an aggressively conventional film made by a notoriously strange and combustible director, David O. Russell. Much attention was paid to the “mainstream” turn the Coen Brothers took with their “True Grit” remake, but “The Fighter” is a more surprising example of audience-friendly entertainment from a creative force known more for cinematic exploration than pleasing the average moviegoer. A theory, though likely not a very original one: directors need to occasionally give studios an incentive to continue funding their unusual projects, and a picture that can be placed in the financial win column can do wonders for securing eight figures for something most unconventional.

Russell previously directed “Three Kings,” not utterly bizarre by any stretch by still quite strange for an action-comedy, and “I Heart Huckabess,” which might be the widest-release ever that would be comfortable in a concept art showroom. “The Fighter” has no mainstream idiosyncrasies or edgy stylistic choices to throw anyone off, and the script’s based on a true story, real names and all. Even the title seems selected out to be innocuous and appealing, a declaration of straightforward intent.

The titular fighter is Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), who enters the picture as a never-was boxer. He comes across as sort of sweet-natured and passive, perhaps odd traits for a professional pugilist, though his dim-wit could easily be explained as the result of having another man’s fist driven into the skull thousands of times.

Then again, his family life could explain his benign demeanor. Micky’s older brother and trainer Dicky Ecklund (Christian Bale, actually several years younger than Wahlberg) is a has-been, a drug-addled local celebrity who can’t go a full minute without reminding everyone that he once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard, though that he lost the fight doesn’t make the reminiscing. A HBO documentary crew follows Dicky around, which he explains as a film about his comeback, though the producer candidly informs an observer they’re doing a piece on crack addiction.

The rest of Micky’s family doesn’t hold much more appeal, though for different reasons. His mother Alice (Melissa Leo) acts as manager, though what she knows about the business seems like it could be written on the back of a postage stamp. Alice manages Micky right into a fight where he’s outweighed by 20 pounds, but doesn’t feel bad enough about it not to become incensed at the notion that he should be managed professionally. Micky’s girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) sees that his career needs course correction, and tries to help, but he’s not the sort that dismisses family easily. We sense a lifetime of guilt trips from his mother, who would rather live vicariously through a failed child than see him succeed without her management. He has seven loud sisters, all of whom never leave their mother’s house, and offer little support beyond encouragements to toe the line.

The performances are uniformly excellent, evoking a sort of cultural authenticity not often seen from actors whose names adorn the top of posters. Wahlberg has both the physical menace of a boxer coupled with an unassuming demeanor, not an inflection he’s generally known for but has proven capable of over the years. Most noticeable (and most likely to secure an Oscar nom) is Bale, who disappears into this yammering junkie so thoroughly that thoughts of Batman and Patrick Bateman never come up. He’s famed for losing and gaining huge amounts of weight, but here he has a collection of tics, a nervous energy that carries his scenes.

The film maintains a good degree of interest for the first three quarters, before segueing into pure formula for the end. Anyone familiar with “Rocky,” and that’s just about everyone, could predict with unfailing accuracy the trajectory and tone of each second of the final 25 or so minutes. There’s even a training montage, and the family, romance, and drug issues that the film’s drama was predicated vanish, replaced by sobriety and team spirit. As evidenced by the Coens’ “True Grit,” mainstream films from offbeat can be a blessing, but they can also come with a heavy cost.

3 out of 5

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