‘The Fighter’ becomes a contender


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The fall movie season got a major jolt, and the awards season a bona fide new player, when David O. Russell’s ‘The Fighter’ world-premiered in Los Angeles on Tuesday evening.

The working-class, Massachusetts-set family drama -- which stars Mark Wahlberg as real-life 1990s boxing hopeful ‘Irish’ Micky Ward and, even more eye-catchingly to many in the room, Christian Bale as his fighter-turned-crack addict half-brother -- played to rapturous crowds at its surprise AFI Fest screening. Russell’s film, his most dramatic in a career filled with dark comedies, had the audience engaged in its underdog story from the start, while the crowd laughs came too, particularly in scenes showing Ward’s large Catholic family and standoffs between his domineering mother (Melissa Leo) and broad-minded girlfriend (Amy Adams).


The reception marked a turnaround of heavyweight proportions. Interest in ‘The Fighter’ was high coming into the fall, if only because the movie represented a rarity in the current climate: a high-end studio drama. (It’s arguably only the second such example, after ‘The Social Network’ earlier in the season; a third, the Coen brothers’ remake of ‘True Grit,’ has yet to premiere.) But as the months wore on and no one had seen the film, it risked becoming an afterthought.

In 24 hours, however, all of that changed. The early-December release went from a question mark with no public screenings on the docket to a contender in both the commercial and awards departments.

The movie will still face some obstacles on the first count. The major studios decision to stop releasing dramas with big stars and budgets may recognize or reinforce a shrunken appetite. There’s a reason this film went through so many false starts. (Taking the stage before the screening, Wahlberg said repeatedly, almost pleadingly, that this ‘was not an easy movie to get made.’) And with the movie’s auteur’s framing and serious themes, the conventional wisdom could suggest that it lacks the ingredients of a mainstream hit.

At the same time, the history of boxing crowd-pleasers is longer than, well, Don King’s hair, and loud applause at a climactic fight scene suggested this film could well continue that tradition. And the success of ‘The Town,’ set in a similarly working-class Massachusetts milieu, can only help ‘The Fighter.’

On the Oscar front things should be simpler. Acclaimed movies set in the ring -- though they date all the way back to ‘Rocky’ and ‘Raging Bull’ (and before) -- continue to resonate with voters. This past decade alone, ‘Million Dollar Baby’ and ‘The Wrestler’ both became awards-season favorites. Those thinking the well had run dry were pleasantly surprised on Tuesday night, and it’s likely others will find themselves thinking the same in the weeks to come.

-- Steven Zeitchik



The bell will ring for ‘The Fighter’ at AFI Fest