Thursday, February 03, 2011

THE FIGHTER - Bale is outstanding, the rest is cliché and caricature

THE FIGHTER is a good old-fashioned boxing under-dog movie, with all the clichés and genre-conventions that go with the territory. 1. You get a boxer. He's scrabbling around getting beaten up for half the film. He gets a title fight chance - there's a training montage - he wins against all odds. 2. The boxer has a trainer who is self-destructive and threatens to derail the boxer's career. But the boxer really does need him and so they reconcile before the title fight. 3. The boxer has a girlfriend. She really believes in him and protects his interests against all the liggers and users who try to derail him. It's been the same story ever since ROCKY.

In this version, The Boxer is real-life Boston fighter, Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg). He's the stereotypical good guy, but hen-pecked by a manipulative, over-bearing mother (Melissa Leo) and his seven sisters. The Self-Destructive Trainer is Micky's step-brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale). Dicky used to be a fighter too, and is living off the memory of the time he supposedly knocked out Sugar Ray Leonard. Like many addicts, he's developed a charming, witty, winning personality out of survival instinct - as a crack-addict he's constantly having to charm his way back into his family's affections. Together, Micky's family put him in shitty fights, needing the money, and emotionally blackmail him from getting outside help. The Girlfriend is Charlene Fleming (Amy Adams), a feisty waitress who sits in Micky's corner, but essentially, rather than liberating him from his family, she just provides another set of commands. Coupled with its straightforward genre-convetions, THE FIGHTER has a straightforward, linear plot. We meet Micky as a third-rate journeyman boxer - see Charlene force a split with the family - only to unite before the climactic title fight. Nothing new there.

The resulting film gives us no surprises. You can predict how it's going to work, and who's going to do what. Most of the characters are caricatures. Silent, frustrated Micky. The evil manipulative mother - a far less subtle portrayal than Livia Soprano, and practically on a level with the animated Mother Gothel in Disney's TANGLED. The Feisty Girlfriend. And the performances are pretty mono-dimensional too. I think Wahlberg has been unfairly blamed for being "absent" - that's what his role calls for. But I really don't get all the praise for Melissa Leo and Amy Adams. Their characters are just crude portrayals of one-note harpies. Maybe I should blame the writing, but honestly, there's nothing demanding or insightful here. Only Christian Bale as Dicky Eklund is given a character with real depth, contradiction and development. He's a man trapped inside a delusion - a fictional character called "the pride of Lowell" that he performs for his fellow townsfolk, crack addicts and inmates. Sure he plays up to the cameras, when the HBO documentarians come to town, but he's playing up to reality too. As the movie unfolds, we see him confronted with his delusion and move towards some kind of self-knowledge. It's a superb piece of writing, and a bravura performance from Bale - as broad as the Joker in the "Pride of Lowell" character, yet also reflective and quiet as the reforming Dicky. Dicky is the real Fighter in this film - and the real emotional centre of the movie. When we see the final frame static capture of the brothers celebrating Micky's triumph, it's Dicky's face we look to. It's his triumph to have reformed, to have been let back into Micky's corner, and to have become a big enough man to allow his brother his success, and to be proud of him. Bale should be getting all the awards this season - but for Best Actor, rather than Supporting Actor.

I guess I've already hinted at what I perceive to be the weaknesses in the script - the broad characterisations and resistance to pushing the envelope. I think there are also real weaknesses with David O Russell's (THREE KINGS, I HEAR HUCKABEES) directorial choices. Essentially, I feel that Russell is living in the shadow of Darren Aronofsky in this picture. After the success of THE WRESTLER, Aronofsky was down to direct THE FIGHTER and lives on as its executive producer. A lot of the way in which Russell approaches the material seems to be "Aronofsky-lite" - a sort of pastiche of the filming style used in THE WRESTLER. It's all hand-held cameras, faux-documentary intimacy and visible grain. Which is ironic because as much as this film tries hard to capture the clothes, accents, and gritty reality of 1980s Lowell, with a script trading to high in cliché, it really could've been set anywhere. Worst of all, David O Russell bottles out of doing anything interesting with the boxing scenes, with the convenient excuse of using the HBO crews to re-create the pay-per-view look.

THE FIGHTER opened in 2010 in the US, the Philippines and Canada. It is currently on release in Singapore, Greece, Australia and Iceland. It opens this weekend in the UK and Brazil. It opens on February 11th in Portugal, Russia, Poland and Turkey. It opens on February 25th in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Norway. It opens in March in Malaysia, Lithuania, Sweden and the Netherlands. It opens on April 7th in Germany.

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