THE FIGHTER: Insert Your ‘Knockout’ Pun Of Choice Here.

27 12 2010

Six years ago, director David O. Russell was riding high a winning streak as auspicious as any other young American director around. His debut, the dark incest comedy (is there any other kind of incest comedy?) SPANKING THE MONKEY, begat the hilarious bedroom farce FLIRTING WITH DISASTER. In 2002, O. Russell made his M*A*S*H* in THREE KINGS, a stylish, audacious anti-war adventure that still feels urgent. In spite of reports that he and that KINGS’ star George Clooney had come to blows on set, O. Russell was on a roll – and then, he made I HEART HUCKABEES, an unfunny “existential comedy” that traded the cutting humor of his previous films for an all-star cast, and a whole bunch of ponderous bullshit. (Bad trade.) I hearted it almost as much as O. Russell, apparently, hearted shooting it.

Mark Wahlberg, seen here floating somehow in mid-air, in THE FIGHTER

Hey, everyone’s allowed an air ball, but in Hollywood you’re only as good as your last picture, and I HEART HUCKABEES came out way back in 2004. The gap grew, as O. Russel began work on political satire NAILED, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Tracy Morgan, Jessica Biel, and James Caan, among others. Doing nothing to dispel his questionable rap, O. Russell’s production was shut down four times, with Caan walking off. Then, there were the financing woes that led IATSE to shut down production because the crew wasn’t getting paid. In June, O. Russell officially gave up on the film. In a can somewhere it sits.

Suddenly, a golden child’s combativeness was getting more press than his talent. And so, in 2009, when it was announced that O. Russell had attached himself to the sports drama THE FIGHTER, the question became, just how desperate is he? And if this was, as it appeared to be, a straight-up paycheck, which O. Russell would show up to collect it? The wunderkind… or what? So, I didn’t know what to expect from THE FIGHTER. For the maker of such original comedies to attempt a sports drama – it just seemed like a mismatch. Perhaps he could do something interesting with the true story of the rise of Irish Micky Ward – a feel-good story if ever there were. But O. Russell? Feel-good? What I expected, I guess, was something passable at best, and a career death knell at worst. What I didn’t expect of THE FIGHTER turns out to be what it is – an absolutely superb movie.

Christian Bale, in the Altered State of Drugachussets (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TDpt9iicEow)

Here’s the story of Micky and Dicky Ward, brothers in working class Lowell, Massachusetts, the shittiest town in all Massachusetts. (That’s clocked.) Dicky, (Christian Bale,) a former prizefighter himself, is now Micky’s (Mark Wahlberg) trainer – when he’s not too busy getting his crack fix. When HBO arrives in Lowell to film Dicky, he manages to convince himself it’s to document his comeback – and not his addiction. Dicky, along with his and Micky’s long shadow of a mother Alice (Melissa Leo) work in Micky’s corner – but are they helping him up? Or pulling him down with them?

Family dramas and sports stories are two genres that tend to leave me cold; I didn’t see THE BLIND SIDE, for instance, and I never ever will, ever. But scene after scene of THE FIGHTER lands with a ring of authenticity, a reminder of why sports movies can be so damned exhilarating.

O. Russell has always known how to direct Mark Wahlberg, from THREE KINGS to HUCKABEES, in which his bicycle-riding fireman was just about the only highlight. Here, Wahlberg does the best work of his career, flat out. His Micky, a deeply sympathetic figure, possesses wellsprings of strength, just none he can tap to tear himself away from his destructive family. It’s a performance that conveys Micky’s weakness, his paralysis, while never making him pathetic. Pathos duties fall to Bale, whose turn as Dicky recalls the manic sweat-stained energy of Ratso Rizzo. The only thing not totally credible about Bale is his obviously shaved hairline. Melissa Leo and Amy Adams also put in great nuanced work, as Micky’s mother and bartender girlfriend respectively – as does Jack McGee, whom you will recognize as ‘that guy from literally everything.’ McGee really deserves a mention for his winning characterization of George, the put-upon father of Dicky and Micky – if only because it’s probably everybody else in the cast who will be getting the attention for their performances. The Spielblog loves you, McGee!

The Lowell city council is hoping that THE FIGHTER boosts tourism to Lowe-ahhh who am I kidding? STAY AWAY FROM LOWELL, PEOPLE.

Adding to the feel of authenticity, O. Russell shoots his fight sequences digitally on television cameras, so that they appear cut from the original HBO broadcasts of Ward’s fights themselves. With one minor slow-motion exception, the bouts aren’t over-stylized; the physicality is what’s on display, and it’s clear Wahlberg put in a lot of real work for the part. You can’t fake that. (Word is, Wahlberg kept up his fight training for years – just in case THE FIGHTER moved ahead into production. Deeeeam, yo.) That HBO fight commentators Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant, and Roy Jones, Jr. preside for the play-by-play on the audio track only enhances the realism. And check out that cameo from the real Sugar Ray Leonard, who has apparently not aged since 1981. (Somebody call the Vatican, we got a demon.)

THE FIGHTER – a title so dull first read – turns out pretty close to perfect, just like the film wearing it. Because, like all great sports films, this isn’t about sport. THE FIGHTER is about people fighting each other because of the love they have for one another – and the paradox in that. It’s about hurting what you love, trying to hang onto it. If you can’t relate to that, then Mister, you’re a better man than Steven Spielblog. THE FIGHTER, with soul and technique to match, hit me like the punch I never saw coming. David O. Russell, once on the ropes, has gotten his feet back under him – and what he’s made, in its underdog way, is a contender for best film of the year.

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