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" could be the third one to deliver a knock-out punch and win the title.
Two early indictors bode well for the film: a Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture, and a nomination for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture from the Screen Actors Guild. Melissa Leo and Amy Adams also earned Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role nominations, while Christian Bale received one for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role.
And 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. I suspect Bale will be the frontrunner for 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 DVD Town scale, I'd have to give it 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. I don't know if it'll beat out "Black Swan" for Best Picture, but "The Fighter" ought to earn an Oscar nomination for that category, and if Bale is nominated for Best Supporting Actor, I think he'll win the statue.