Just like its subject, one-time junior welterweight champion "Irish" Mickey Ward, the rousing "The Fighter" tries a number of risky maneuvers and manages to make them pay off in the end. The movie initially feels like more of a near thing than the filmmakers anticipated, but as in boxing it's only the final decision that counts.
Telling Ward's story, which showcases the kind of personal and professional chaos no boxing movie can exist without, has long been a near-obsession for star Mark Wahlberg, whose rock-solid performance is the film's irreplaceable anchor. The actor has been a fan of Ward since he was a lad growing up in the Boston area and the fighter was living in nearby Lowell and competing so fiercely that Ring Magazine named his bouts the fight of the year three years running.
FOR THE RECORD:
"The Fighter": The review of the movie "The Fighter" in the Dec. 10 Calendar section misspelled the first name of boxer Micky Ward as Mickey. —
Wahlberg was so keen to play Ward that he installed a ring on his property and engaged in early morning boxing training for nearly four years in anticipation of the movie eventually being made.
The actor also persuaded his friend David O. Russell, who had directed him in "Three Kings" and "I Heart Huckabees," to make this Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson script (which inevitably streamlines and simplifies Ward's life), his first time behind the camera in six years.
Aside from his boxing prowess, the heart of Ward's story and what makes it worth a film is the involvement of his intense, close-knit family, especially erratic half-brother Dicky Eklund ( Christian Bale), who helped train him, his flinty mother Alice ( Melissa Leo), who managed him, and Charlene ( Amy Adams), the attractive young woman he has his eye on.
The film introduces Ward in the midst of training for an upcoming fight. Though his beloved older brother is supposed to be in charge of preparations, Dicky is much more interested in taking drugs and clowning for an HBO film crew that is following him around for what he thinks will be a film on his comeback.
Also not looking out for Ward's best interests is his piece-of-work mother and manager, Alice. Beautifully played by Leo, down to the lacquered blond hair, Alice is a self-absorbed queen bee of manipulation, a chain-smoking lord of misrule who hovers like a vulture over her son's career.
Alice and Dicky's golden rule is that if Ward doesn't fight, no one gets paid, so we watch horrified early in the film as they talk him into a terrible mismatch that gets him battered half to death.
It's around this time that Ward meets his soulmate, a hot number local bartender named Charlene Fleming, who has a deserved reputation as a party girl. Splendidly taken on against type by Adams, Charlene is as sane as Mickey and a whole lot tougher psychologically. More than aware that his family members aren't doing right by him, Charlene campaigns for Mickey to free himself from their grasp, and the complications of that endeavor, anticipated and otherwise, are this film's main outside-the-ring agenda.
Never a stranger to freewheeling emotion, Russell was clearly attached to the excessive natures of this intertwined group. This means that "The Fighter" at times portrays the Ward-Eklund clan (which includes father George, played by Jack McGee, and no fewer than seven sisters) as a species of wild and crazy Bay State Hillbillies.
Most excessive of the bunch is half-brother Dicky, once a promising fighter, but by the early '90s, when the film begins, a bedraggled character living off the memories of a 1978 fight with Sugar Ray Leonard and so complete and woeful a crack addict he regularly loses track of time and his car.
As played by a noticeably thinner Bale (who lost considerable weight for the part but not as much as he did for "The Machinist"), Dicky still has the gift of gab but he's not quite the charmer he thinks he is.
Though the way this clan is portrayed on film is arguably based on reality, that doesn't guarantee they're people you will be eager to spend cinematic time with. "The Fighter" runs the risk of being too in love with these questionable folks, too willing to indulge their irritating foibles. As it turns out, the film is developing strong reasons for doing things this off-putting way but it makes for heavy going in the early days.
When compared to his brother, Ward is an icon of stability and yet another splendid performance from Wahlberg, who stabilizes the picture by bringing his trademark intensely masculine presence to bear as well as his deep knowledge of Ward and his socio-economic background. Wahlberg couldn't be more convincing as perhaps the only sane person in a universe of addicts, losers and social misfits.
Inside the ring, there are always key fights coming up for Ward. When F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote there were no second acts in American lives, he certainly didn't have boxing movies and their ever-looming championship bouts in mind. As things start to fall into place, "The Fighter's" inevitable classic finale is especially satisfying because of how long and bruising a path Mickey Ward and this film have taken to get there.
MPAA rating: R for language throughout, drug content, some violence and sexuality
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Playing: At the ArcLight, Hollywood