Underdog boxers have it made in movies. Rocky and Million Dollar Baby both won Best Picture Oscars and fat purses. But they were fiction films that could make stuff up and add rah-rah without shame. The Fighter is a true story that has facts to stick to about "Irish" Micky Ward, a blue-collar street rat from Lowell, Massachusetts, who bumped along nearly anonymously in the 1980s before winning a welterweight title. Micky fought his killer battles outside the ring, with family, including his manager mom, Alice, and his older boxer half brother, Dickie Eklund, a junkie ex-con who once went the distance with Sugar Ray Leonard. In the ring, Micky tended to lie back, take the punishment and wait until springing a fabled left hook that could make you piss blood.
It's Micky's story that attracted actor-producer Mark Wahlberg to make The Fighter. He spent four years training to play this quiet warrior surrounded by the noise of conflict. This immersive marvel of a movie resembles Micky's left hook in the way it sneaks up and floors you. For Wahlberg, it's a labor of love — hard labor. When The Wrestler's Darren Aronofsky passed on directing, Wahlberg brought on David O. Russell, the sparking live wire who guided him through two of his best performances, in Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees. After Matt Damon and Brad Pitt turned down the role of crackhead Dickie, Wahlberg lucked out big-time with Christian Bale. To watch these two dynamite actors spar is one of the purest pleasures of the movie season.
I have one word for Bale: phenomenal. He dropped 30 pounds to play the skinny, loose-limbed, demon-driven Dickie. But his hilarious and heartbreaking performance cuts deep under the surface. Bale's eyes reflect the man Micky grew up hero-worshipping as "the pride of Lowell" who might find that pride again as Micky's trainer. Dickie believes that HBO is filming him for a special that will help restore his career. In truth, the show (1995's High on Crack Street) is an exposé on addiction that leaves Dickie devastated. Wahlberg's approach to Micky is appropriately and artfully lower-key. He's the soul of the movie, showing how Micky shapes himself as a man who can take on a champion like Arturo Gatti, and his own family.
Russell and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema stage the fights thrillingly, without losing sight that the real ring of fire for Micky has been drawn by mom Alice (a spectacular Melissa Leo rivals nature as a force) and Micky's seven sisters. Amy Adams brings sexiness, humor and blunt truth to Charlene, the bartender who prods the man she loves to break from his family without seeing her as part of the problem. The scene in which Micky brokers his own truce with Charlene and Dickie is a highlight for the film and the actors. The Fighter, its heart full to bursting, is an emotional powerhouse that comes close to spilling over. No sweat. Like Micky, this is a warrior's movie that rises to the bell.