FIGHTER, THE – Blu-ray review

Note: In the following joint Blu-ray review, both John and Jim provide their thoughts on the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.

The Film According to John:
“The Fighter” is a boxing movie for people who couldn’t care less about boxing.

That’s because 2010’s “The Fighter” isn’t just about boxing, even though its main character, real-life former light-welterweight champion Micky Ward, is a boxer. You see, the title has two meanings: While Ward is, indeed, a fighter in the ring, it’s his domestic fights that fuel the picture; namely, his fights with his family and specifically with his brother, Dicky, who actually dominates the story as much as Micky does.

The movie begins in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1992, as Micky (Mark Wahlberg) is an up-and-coming young boxer with a so-so record. His mother (Melissa Leo, whose performance won her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress) manages his fights, and his older brother, former professional boxer Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor) trains him. Neither his mother nor his brother, however, know what they’re doing. As a result of the bad advice they give him, Micky’s career is going nowhere.

As good as Mark Wahlberg is playing the soft-spoken, essentially nice-guy Ward, it’s the two supporting players who steal the show. Melissa Leo’s character comes across as brash, stubborn, domineering, and irritating, a woman more interested in herself than in her son. Poor Ward is so family oriented, however, he can’t see how badly his relatives are handling him.

Still, this is Christian Bale’s movie. His portrayal of Dicky makes the movie work. In fact, it’s a wonder the real brother and mother allowed the filmmakers to portray them the way they did in the film, given that both characters come off as less than appealing, to say the least. Dicky is an irresponsible, drug-addled egotist who seems under the delusion that he can make a comeback in boxing. In his lucid moments, he probably figures in can use his brother to relive whatever past glory he attained. (Dicky’s one big claim to fame is that he once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard in the ring, although other people claim Leonard slipped.)

In any event, HBO cameramen follow Dicky around filming a documentary on crack addiction, which the delusional Dicky has convinced himself is about his comeback. And you wouldn’t recognize Bale in the part: He’s got a goofy haircut, a receding hairline, a bald spot in the back, oddball teeth, and a skinny, almost emaciated look from dropping a ton of weight. While I applaud the actor for his dedication and insistence on authenticity, I also worry about his health in losing and gaining so many pounds so often. He did this same sort of thing a few years earlier for the movie “The Machinist.”

But it’s not only Micky’s mother and brother the film pictures as less-than-desirable human beings; the film also depicts his sisters as some kind of sub-cretinous white-trash Neanderthals. They are really scary, and there seem to be about 800 of them, always hanging around Micky’s mother and dad’s house doing nothing but lounging and behaving in some idiotic fashion or another. Did the family approve this script, I wonder, or did they just take the money and run?

Anyway, the story tells us that Micky’s mother and brother were albatrosses around his neck, dragging him further down by the minute, until Micky meets Charlene Fleming (Amy Adams), who becomes his girlfriend and advisor. She is one of the few people in Micky’s life who seems to have any sense whatsoever. Adams, who usually plays squeaky-clean types, steps out of character here as a hard-nosed bartender who is able to knock some common sense into Micky’s head. She’s a terrific actress, too, and pulls off the role with ease.

David O. Russell directed the film without resorting to too many hyperkinetic shots or too much quick editing, instead relying on a moderate tempo and allowing the story to unfold at its own pace. With filming locations in and around the real Lowell, Massachusetts, the movie has the look and feel of reality to complement the excellence of its acting.

Drawbacks? Yeah, maybe. The film’s portrayal of Ward’s family from hell can become abrasive and annoying pretty quickly, and for fight fans the story will end far too soon, before Ward’s biggest matches. But, then, if you remember the film is not actually about his fights in the ring so much as his fights outside it, I suppose it doesn’t matter.

According to the movie, everything was a battle for Micky Ward, inside and outside the ring. “He’s done it again,” says the announcer during a boxing match, as Ward pulls out yet another upset victory. It’s an apt comment on the film itself.

Trivia note: The part of Mickey O’Keefe, Ward’s trainer in the film, is played by…Mickey O’Keefe, Ward’s real-life trainer, whom Wahlberg thought was better than any actor they could get for the part. And in the movie, Bale’s character is the older brother by about seven years, when in reality Wahlberg is older than Bale.

John’s film rating: 7/10

The Film According to Jim:
Boxing movies have been a Hollywood staple since “The Champ” (1931), a near-Shakespearian tragic tale of an alcoholic pugilist, was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. A lot of good boxing pictures followed, including “City for Conquest” (1940), “Gentleman Jim” (1942), “Somebody Up There Likes Me” (1956), “Requiem for A Heavyweight” (1962), “The Great White Hope” (1970), and “Raging Bull” (1981). But only two boxing films have won Best Picture at the Academy Awards: “Rocky” (1976) and “Million Dollar Baby” (2004). “The Fighter” won Oscars for Best Supporting Actor, Christian Bale, and Best Supporting Actress, Melissa Leo.

Inexplicably, Mark Wahlberg received a Best Actor nomination from the Hollywood Foreign Press. I say “inexplicably” because while this is a boxing movie and Wahlberg is the star, “The Fighter” doesn’t feel like the biopic of a real-life boxer. “Irish” Micky Ward won the WBU Light Welterweight Championship in 2000, but the focus in this film curiously isn’t on him. The spotlight is first directed on his cokehead half-brother, Dicky Eklund, whose claim to fame was a fight against Sugar Ray Leonard in 1978 that he lost by decision. Dicky is the first one we see on-camera being interviewed by a film crew, and we follow the crew as the crew follows Dicky (Bale) and his brother, Micky (Wahlberg), through the streets of Lowell as they give a tour. Dicky is convinced that Hollywood is making a film about his comeback. We’re not so sure.

Inspired, no doubt, by the book Irish Thunder: The Hard Life and Times of Micky Ward by Bob Halloran, “The Fighter” can frustrate viewers expecting a standard biopic. What we get is a bit of early cinematic sleight of hand. The film focuses first on the troubled Dicky, then on Micky’s controlling fight-manager mother (Melissa Leo) and a bevy of ill-mannered sisters and half-sisters. The boxer who would go on to win a championship almost can’t get a word in edgewise, which can annoy viewers almost as much as his dysfunctional family. Then again, family is the biggest obstacle that Ward apparently had to overcome, so it’s appropriate that in this film he has to fight for screen time with a loud, abrasive, and constantly yapping family just as, apparently, he had to do in real life. The end credits aptly illustrate this, as Ward and his brother Dicky are shown on-camera and Dicky absolutely dominates.

The premise of the Hollywood filmmakers doing a movie about Eklund–a film within a film–serves not only a major narrative function, but also adds a reality-show feel to a movie that already has a gritty and voyeuristic look and feel. The same impulse that draws viewers to watch reality TV shows will pull them in to monitor this train wreck of a family and wonder how it will all end. In fact, it’s the supporting cast and details of life lived by a lower-class family in Lowell, Massachusetts, circa 1993-2000, that makes “The Fighter” a compelling film to watch–not the boxing scenes, which seem almost secondary. Bale looks wild and strung out in the early going, and later, when his character is “clean,” he’s back to normal. But throughout the film he’s full of nervous energy and channels those facial tics and mannerisms that we briefly see in the real Dicky in the end credits. It’s no wonder Bale won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Leo is very good too, as is Amy Adams as the bartender who forms both the romantic interest for Micky and the wedge that comes between him and his family.

Director David O. Russell (“Three Kings”) enlisted a European cinematographer, and Hoyte Van Hoytema brings an outsider’s perspective and European sensibilities to the film. The fight scenes are pretty standard, but then again it’s tough to do something really new and interesting with boxing sequences. In the end, what sets this boxing picture apart from the rest is that to reach the championship fight Micky Ward first had to go a few rounds with his family. And that is memorable.

On the DVDTOWN rating scale, I’d have to give the movie an 8 out of 10. The supporting cast is superb, the cinematography is interesting, and the story itself keeps moving forward with all the fascination that a life-as-its-lived TV reality show has to offer.

Jim’s film rating: 8/10

Paramount engineers do a first-rate job transferring the 2.35:1 ratio movie to disc in high definition. They use a dual-layer BD50 and MPEG-4 AVC encoding to reproduce the image, ensuring deep black levels, rich colors, and solid definition, with a very fine inherent film grain overlaying the picture and providing a truthful, if sometimes rough, texture.

Because the film is largely dialogue driven, the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack doesn’t have a lot to do for most of the movie. Where it does comes to life, however, is in replicating a variety of background songs and enhancing the several big fight scenes. In the case of the music, the stereo spread, frequency range, and dynamic impact vary from song to song, some boomy, some more natural. In the case of the fights in the ring, the bass and dynamics can be awesome. In terms of surround activity, you’ll find a number of subtle environmental sounds, crowd noises and such, that make the movie all the more realistic.

Disc one of this two-disc set contains the Blu-ray edition of the feature film in high definition, an audio commentary by director David O. Russell, and several featurettes and other bonus items. The featurette “The Warriors Code: Filming The Fighter” is about thirty minutes long and includes comments from the real fighter, the cast, the crew, as well as behind-the-scenes footage. After that is the featurette “Keeping the Faith,” about eight minutes long, with the real Ward, his real family, and his real friends reminiscing. Then, there are sixteen deleted scenes, with optional director commentary, and a widescreen theatrical trailer.

In addition, you’ll find sixteen scene selections; bookmarks; English as the only spoken language; English, French, and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Finally, because this is a combo pack, disc two contains a DVD edition of the film in standard definition, plus a digital copy of the film for PC and Mac (the offer expiring March 15, 2012). The two discs come housed in a flimsy Eco-case, further enclosed in a handsomely embossed slipcover.

Parting Thoughts:
“The Fighter” is just your basic family picture, as long you understand the family here is more unusual than most. It appears from the movie that Micky Ward had to fight his whole life through, first and foremost with his family. Nevertheless, he did made it through his personal problems, and the story of his bonds with his family, no matter how trying the family could be, helps this boxing movie rise above the run-of-the-mill inspirational sports stories we usually find on the big screen.