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Ten Word or Less Review: Batman and Dirk Diggler team up for boxing flick.  TKO!

Looking at it from the outside The Fighter doesn’t look extremely promising.  Mark Wahlberg is a drunk driver of a leading man.  He might be able to perform admirably behind the wheel (The Departed) or he might just crash into a wall in a heap of flaming wreckage (The Happening).  David O. Russell is helming but since the success of Three Kings over a decade ago he’s accomplished next to nothing.  His film before this one languishes somewhere, unfinished.  And then there’s the whole idea of sitting through another clichéd, worn out, underdog sports flick, centered on boxing no less.  But despite all this The Fighter manages to rise above its inherented drawbacks.  Russell and his cast put together a film which is more dysfunctional family saga than boxing film and on the strength of Wahlberg, and stand out co-star Christian Bale, deliver a fine drama that people across the board should appreciate.

Based on a true story, The Fighter focuses on boxing brothers Mickey Ward (Wahlberg) and Dickie Eklund (Bale).  Eklund was once a strong up and comer who lost his way.  Now a raging crack addict with teeth falling out, he lives vicariously though his brother’s accomplishments and on his own inflated sense of nostalgia.  Mickey is the quiet brother who suffers passively as his brother and mother (Melissa Leo) let down and mismanage his career through self-interest and neglect.  After bottoming out by losing a fight he shouldn’t have gone through with, Ward meets Charlene (Amy Adams) a woman who sees Mickey being misused by people and finally pushes him in a better direction that he can’t go in on his own.  He cuts himself off from his family in an attempt to become a stronger person and boxer but finds that though his family may not be the best, he may not be able to function without them.

Bale’s the attention getting scene stealer.  He’s once again emaciated himself for cinema.  While nowhere near the frightening physique he achieved for The Mechanic he’s still a rag doll of a human, all bones, ticks and bug eyes.  Dickie’s self-destruction is more pathetic and sad than loathsome and Bale makes this poor excuse for a human sympathetic.  It would’ve been easy to villain up the part but he’s too sad a person to waste hate on.  Wahlberg goes understated and studied as Mickey Ward.  He’s a guy too shy and introverted to say the things he needs to the people he should which turn into strengths for Wahlberg.  The faux charm and offbeat emoting that typify a bad Wahlberg performance are mercifully absent.  Melissa Leo is his force of nature mother.  A woman who doesn’t so much mother as steamroll, she’s an intimidating presence.  Amy Adams is going with haggard but sexy as Charlene.  Both women turn in great work and more than hold their own against the likes of Bale.

The entire cast benefits greatly from a sturdy screenplay as well as Russell’s unobtrusive, low key direction.  Boxing movies are often judged on the strength of their boxing scenes but Fighter doesn’t play this card.  Its few fight scenes contain neither the credibility straining bombast of a Rocky film nor the methodical artistry of genre pinnacle Raging Bull.  Instead Russell stages his fights by simply recreating the HBO Sports look and feel that these fights originally had, going so far as to use the fight commentaries as they were heard on the air.  It may be an unorthodox choice but it works.

The Fighter stands tall as a work that once again proves that the story you’re telling isn’t so much important as how you tell it.  While rooted in clichés and uplift like so many sports vehicles before it Fighter works because of performance and integrity.  The entire cast shines brightly and Oscar nominations seem sure with even a win or two very possible.  It may not quite challenge its boxing classic forefathers but there’s nothing wrong with achieving integrity and class.



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