By Brian Orndorf
“The Fighter” doesn’t flourish as an original offering of filmmaking. It’s an underdog story of sporting glory, seen in hundreds of motion pictures throughout the years; it’s also a tale of brutes dreaming and failing each other in a harsh working class corner of Massachusetts. Again, been there, done that. Where “The Fighter” retrieves inspiration is found deep within its heart, dissecting the lives of “Irish” Micky Ward and his brother Dicky Eklund with an aim for intimacy, more curious about human interaction in the heat of conflict than a routine staging of the comeback blues. It’s an agitated picture that, much like its real-world inspiration, has enormous spirit to overcome its dreary familiarity.
In Lowell, Massachusetts, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) is a legend. A former boxer who famously knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard, Dicky is a manic machine who adores two things: his pugilist brother Micky (Mark Wahlberg) and crack, a drug habit that’s reduced him to a wisp of a man. Facing a dire future after his latest fight goes horribly awry, Micky is confronted with the toxicity of his enormous family, including his mother and manager, Alice (Melissa Leo). Looking to make a change for himself, spurred on by the support of girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams), Micky attempts to break away from his family’s control, an act that sends the boxer to victorious heights, but threatens to shun Dicky and crush his intense world of brotherly adoration.
Faced with a script of proven clichés, director David O. Russell (“Three Kings,” “I Heart Huckabees”) pulls “The Fighter” from his gut, grabbing the grit of the city and the pain of the characters with both hands, reworking tired elements into something fresh and unexpectedly humorous. It’s a heroic submission of direction in the manner it brings everything to life, zeroing in on the veneer of familial harmony between the brothers to read further into these broken lives, breathing some needed oxygen into a tale otherwise bewitched by “Rocky” residue. The picture has a cracking pace, lively characters bloated with Massachusetts bile, and a sense of neighborhood imprisonment, shaping an encrusted reality to balance out the Cinderella story.
While the boxing scenes maintain a punishing visceral feel of punches, showcasing a rich command of the sport’s body language, “The Fighter” is more of a character piece observing two brothers at war with themselves. Outgrowing his suffocating family, Micky is facing a new dawn for his career, away from the embedded perception of empowerment he’s received from those who stand to gain financially from his fighting. Reclaiming his skill with the help of clear-thinker Charlene, Micky steps into the unknown, turning his back on his brother, shattering the diseased routine of their lives. On the other side, Dicky is a mess, devoting his prime adult years to crack, which has rendered him an emaciated wreck clinging desperately to past glory. He’s all heart, but lost to drugs, leaving him in a frenzied state that poisons his brother’s shot at a lasting career.
The complex psychological interplay between the siblings is a believable yin yang of desperation, featuring two performances that rise to the occasion, each actor putting forth a specialized physicality that’s as expressive as any line of dialogue. Wahlberg admittedly receives the short end of the dramatic stick, as his screen time is devoted primarily to humiliation and speed bag concentration. Bale’s the barnstormer here, radically altering his appearance to fit into Dicky’s itchy skin. It’s a macabre thespian effort, with Bale’s sunken face a haunting image that’s difficult to shake. Portraying the dying light within Dicky, Bale delivers monumentally committed work, fleshing out a difficult role of earnest troublemaking. Russell adores the actor’s oddity, clearly more interested in Dicky’s madness than Micky’s rebirth.
Also of note is Amy Adams’s performance as Charlene, who brings a startling sense of command to the nothing girlfriend role. Throughout the film, Russell finds plenty of knuckle-cracking attitudes to exploit, most emanating from Micky’s cabal of gruff, stiff-banged sisters, yet Adams reaches a unique area of appreciation, deploying her best tough cookie impression while retaining her character’s feisty supportive nature. While the boys are allowed to chew scenery, Adams brings forth a raw, understated feeling of inspiration, enriching the creaky narrative mechanics.
Blu-ray Details and Extras :
The AVC encoded image (2.35:1 aspect ratio) presentation highlights a great amount of screen detail, with clarity keeping the location and actors in ideal view. There’s so much set design nuance and bodily horror to observe (Bale is terrifying in close-ups, while all the post-bashing make-up work is excellent), and the BD handles the finer textures well, while communicating the working class atmosphere of faded colors and sweat. Lots of sweat. Boxing sequences are taken from video sources, with a rougher, jagged look that’s intentional. Shadow detail is a touch muddy during evening sequences. The presentation has a nice command of grain, allowing for a cinematic feel, while juggling film stocks superbly to indicate time. The raw cinematography is captured splendidly on the disc, creating an evocative, respectful viewing experience.
The 5.1 DTS-HD sound mix has a large assortment of atmospheric qualities to play with, pulling the listener in tightly with a wide range of sound effects and dramatic intensity. Obviously, plenty of punch is provided in the boxing moments, which feel out rewarding directional activity and power, presenting movement to the sporting sequences, with solid low-end power. Domestic interiors offer a pleasing read of voices, with superior separation on the accents and commotion, allowing for true comprehension of tension and intimacy. Surrounds are fully engaged for street activity and crowd events, while soundtrack cues are deep and potent, energizing the visuals.
The feature-length audio commentary with director David O. Russell is a hushed affair, with the filmmaker keeping a low profile as his explains his motivations and miracles. Russell is positively in love with Lowell and the story of the brothers, spending a great amount of the conversation pointing out the significance of the locations and the reality of the Eklund family. Camera choices, improvisations, and the nuances of performance are also lively topics for the filmmaker. A few dead spots pop up, but when Russell hits a stride, he provides wonderful backstage detail and anecdotes.
“The Warrior’s Code: Filming ‘The Fighter’” (29:57) isn’t so much a making-of featurette, but a true exploration of the Eklund family, and how that combustible interplay was fitted for the big screen. Interviews with cast and crew describe emotions and ambitions, but the real power here is found in the BTS footage, where the real Eklund brothers are revealed in full, making the final film performances all the more miraculous. This is a textured, communicative exploration of the moviemaking effort. A gem of a BTS featurette.
“Keeping the Faith” (8:33) again soaks up Lowell, investigating Eklund record and the boxing tradition of the city. Interviews with locals illuminate passions and connections, while tracking Micky’s experiences as a fighter.
“Deleted Scenes” (16:53) are numerous, with much of the attention placed on the plight of Dicky, offering several moments of despair and prison charm as an HBO documentary about his addictions approaches. There are also a few additional moments with the sisters, including an alternate intro. The scenes can be viewed with or without select commentary from Russell.
A Theatrical Trailer has been included.
“The Fighter” is enhanced by a killer soundtrack of propulsive songs, edited with a pure eye for pounding rhythms, and shot with an evocative sense of neighborhood politics and boxing authenticity. Control of the picture slips away from Russell at times, who’s so wrapped up in velocity that a few clumsy performances manage to slip by him, along with a smattering of cartoon antics as the story comes to a boil. I’ll chalk it up to enthusiasm, which is an understandable sin. Without that pronounced verve, “The Fighter” would be nothing but aggravating banality.