With all of the hundreds of sports films (about 70% of which are from Disney), for some reason the subject of boxing tends to lead to better films. Rocky, Raging Bull, and to a lesser extent, Million Dollar Baby all tell the tale of an embattled hero (or heroine) in their quest to achieve greatness. Maybe it is the individual struggle that makes such great cinema. In football there is a whole team to track, create story points for, and to cast, while in boxing there are only the boxer, the boxer’s nemesis, and the family and friends of the protagonist. The generally smaller cast seems to lead the movies to focus more on story and character development rather than the actual sport of boxing (Rocky’s sequels notwithstanding).
The Fighter is the latest of this illustrious list of cinematic achievements that show us both sides of an athlete’s life, the one inside and the one outside of the ring. Micky (Mark Walberg) is the devoted younger brother to former champ-turned-crack-addict Dicky (Christian Bale). A series of losses has led Micky to small-fry status and he really wants his chance to shoot back to the top. He struggles to do so, however, due to a very powerful shackle that always seems to keep him from achieving his dream: his boundless devotion to his family.
Enter Charlene (Amy Adams), a lovely bartender whom Micky becomes enamored with. She encourages him to pursue his dream and is the source of much contention between Micky and his family, as he is ordered around by his overbearing, aggressive, and sometimes utterly insane, mother (an Oscar-and-Golden-Globe-winning performance by Melissa Leo) and his junkie brother. This family dynamic is really the focus of the film, and it is fascinating. Dicky has an obvious affection for his younger brother, but his constant absence due to stretches of the day in the local crack house becomes a burden, and his mother seems less concerned about Micky’s personal success and more so about her part in it.
Then there’s Charlene . She is bright, tough, sexy, encouraging and supportive of Micky, despite all of his natural flaws and his overpowering family burden. This is one of the best performances Amy Adams has ever given (probably second only to her young Sister in Doubt). She has played good roles before, but here she is exceptional. Charlene has a vulnerability hidden behind a thick-skinned toughness that is visible, but only hinted at most of the time. This is when you know you’re watching a great actor, when you can almost see what they’re thinking, in spite of their outward appearance. It harkens back to Claudette Colbert’s perfect performance as Ellie in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night.
Mark Walberg gives a career performance here. He has grown to be a truly great actor and we have seen hints of this in previous roles, including his supporting performance in the Departed. Here he shows that not only can he carry a lead in a great film, but he can bring a character to life. I mentioned Adam’s performance, and how you can almost hear what she’s thinking at times. Micky has a different look. It is one of sadness, almost defeat. You can see the determination and frustration in his brow and his posture.
The supporting cast, including Amy Adams and Christian Bale are often scene-stealing. Their more outspoken characters are a contrast to Micky, who is submissive to their more commanding personalities. Melissa Leo, in particular, is quite good. Her Alice is a little sleazy, a lot crazy as Micky and Dicky’s mother. She commands her army of daughters as if they were her loyal subjects and there are some very good exchanges between her and some of the other characters, especially Charlene.
The Fighter is an extremely well-written, smart drama. It is one of the best films of 2010 with terrific performances from all involved. There are a few moments that seem to drag just a bit, and the fight scenes skip ahead a few rounds, occasionally becoming disorienting. I also would have liked to see Micky and Charlene’s relationship examined just a little further, as it seems sort of glanced over at times. Still, the Fighter is an exceptional film and I believe we will begin to see more and more dramatic leading roles for Bale and Walberg in the coming years due to their outstanding work here.