One of the problems with boxing movies is that they tend to be formulaic and predictable. Poor boy sees boxing as his one shot at ‘success’, trains hard, gets smacked around in the ring and outside it, fights against and overcomes personal demons, more hard training for the Big Bout against some evil mutha of an opponent, and we all know what happens next.
I was hoping The Fighter might be a cut above. It’s based on the true story of professional boxer “Irish” Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his older half-brother trainer Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale). Real life pays no heed to dramatic form, so you’d think there was a fair chance that this film might at least shake loose of the formulaic. Well, it gives a bit of a wriggle from time to time, but without quite managing to break free.
That doesn’t necessarily damn it as a movie, of course. Many an unremarkable story has been saved by terrific characters given the treatment by accomplished performers, and there is one standout here: Christian Bale’s Dicky (grow up youse gigglers at the back).
Dicky is a retired boxer whose dubious claim to fame is having knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard (whom many claim merely tripped). Now addicted to crack cocaine, he is notoriously unreliable as Micky’s trainer and not intrinsically very interesting as a character, but Bale conjures up an alchemical combination of manic desperation, bad-boy-with-a-heart charm and will to survive that endows him with an undeniable charisma. Unfortunately, Wahlberg and the other actors pale before Bale’s incandescence. Not their faults – their characters just don’t measure up. This is especially unfortunate for Wahlberg, since his is the lead role.
Micky’s family recall those ‘Walmart people’ pics that are constantly doing the email rounds. This mob are as rough as guts, bog Irish-Americans that are so trashy they’re cartoonish – especially his seven adult sisters, who all still live at home with mom, tyrannical matriarch Alice (Melissa Leo). Naturally, dad (Jack McGee) is emasculated by his ballbreaker wife, and the only member of the family who has half a clue…if only anyone listened to him. Mickey’s boxing career is hampered by his family’s interference and insistence that bro Dicky is the man to train him. When new girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) arrives on the scene, she challenges mom’s authority and becomes Public Enemy Number One for the family. For Mickey, she represents an chance to snap the umbilical cord and make his own way.
Got the picture? Frankly, I’m sick of this dysfunctional family stuff. It’s been done to death. And this setup is too trite, too predictable. Psychology by numbers, in fact.
With a few deviations along the way (thank the lawd), the narrative moves inexorably towards the big fight finale that is de rigeur for the genre. Cinematically, it’s brilliantly done, and while inevitably over the top, is more realistic than most Hollywood boxing bouts. Quite stirring, and for me, the best part of the flick.
The rest, though, I found a bit of a yawn, and sorta pointless. ‘True’ stories do not necessarily translate into great films. Beats me how it’s been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Then again, so was that pile of caca Slumdog Millionaire – and worse still, it got the gong. They had it right for a change last year with The Hurt Locker, but two years in succession? Maybe the odds are not looking too bad for The Fighter…
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