Judge Clark Douglas hears the cinematography in Belle Epoque is supposed to be gorgeous.
The bond of blood may be their only chance for redemption.
"I'm the one who's fighting. Not you, not you and not you."
Facts of the Case
Once upon a time, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale, Batman Begins) was known as the pride of Lowell, Massachusetts. There isn't a person in Lowell who doesn't know about the time that Dicky knocked down the great Sugar Ray Leonard. By the early 1990s, Dicky's life has hit a low point; his crack addiction has found a way to sour everything. Dicky wants nothing more than to make a comeback, but the real contender is his younger half-brother Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg, Shooter). Micky has long been regarded as little more than a stepping stone for more prominent fighters, but it's hard to ignore his potential. There are trainers who want to devote their time to transforming Micky into a big-time fighter, but all of them demand that Micky leave his high-maintenance family behind in the process.
For whatever reason, boxing has demonstrated a greater tendency to produce quality films than most sports. Consider The Set-Up, Rocky, The Hurricane, Raging Bull, Cinderella Man, and Million Dollar Baby. Can any other sports movie subgenre provide a line-up that strong? To further seal the deal, we can now add David O. Russell's The Fighter to that estimable list of excellent boxing flicks.
In some surface-level ways, The Fighter is a rather conventional film. The basic framework of the story is a traditional rags to riches tale; there aren't many surprises in the larger portion of the narrative (particularly if you're a boxing fan, since the film is based on a somewhat well-known true story). The greatness of the story is in the telling, as David O. Russell's cacophonous direction overwhelms the viewer with astonishingly persuasive detail.
The problem with inspirational true stories is that real life has a tendency to embrace clichés from time to time. As such, many rags-to-riches sports films based on real occurrences too often feel artificial and staged. Russell recognizes this hurdle from the outset and responds by doing everything within his power to make these people and the world they live in real to us. I haven't seen many cinematic settings which feel as genuine as Russell's recreation of Lowell, Massachusetts circa 1993.
The story was a particularly personal one for producer and star Mark Wahlberg. Like Ward, he grew up in a lower-class Massachusetts household with nine siblings, and I suspect he had a lot to contribute to the authenticity of this production. There are so many little moments that feel just right—the specifics of the petty arguments between family members, the locations around town these characters frequent, the music they listen to and the way private personal conflicts quickly become conversation fodder for local residents. This is not one of those movies where the actors feel like visitors to the area in which the film is taking place. The Fighter feels lived-in.
Listen to the conversations in this movie. Taking a cue from Robert Altman, Russell encourages his actors to speak over each other at times. The best thing I can say about the screenplay (by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson) is that it never feels like the actors are delivering written dialogue. In too many sports dramas, you can almost see the lines on the page (complete with little red pencil marks) as the actors are speaking. The Fighter has a loose, improvisational quality that works tremendously well. I love that Micky's mother and sisters insist on referring to his girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams, Junebug) as an "MTV girl," despite the fact that nothing about Charlene suggests MTV in any way. "MTV" is simply a handy description for something irritating and new that Micky's family doesn't like.
Even the fight scenes take a refreshingly different approach, as Russell cleverly dusts off some old television equipment to re-stage the fights as we might have seen them during the 1990s. The camera offers the same angles during these scenes as it would if we were watching the fight on HBO—we're watching from a fan's perspective, not from a fighter's. The scenes are well-done, but their strength is entirely built on the character work that precedes them.
It's a tribute to the principle players that everyone disappears inside their respective roles rather quickly. Wahlberg doesn't stretch himself much as an actor in the lead role, but he seems more comfortably at home in this part than in many of his recent outings. His natural ease in the part quickly convinces us that he's Micky Ward. Wahlberg is the gentle center of gravity that holds the chaos together. Melissa Leo (Frozen River) is barely recognizable as Micky and Dicky's overbearing mother, delivering matriarchal fury with remarkable conviction. After several failed attempts, Amy Adams finally manages to successfully play against type as the no-nonsense bartender Charlene. The actress seems to relish the opportunity to play such a distinctively different, nuanced character. Best of all is Christian Bale's turn as Dicky, as the actor goes into full-tilt method mode once again and delivers his strongest performance in years. His Best Supporting Actor Oscar win was unquestionably deserved.
The Fighter arrives on Blu-ray sporting a very handsome 1080p/2.40:1 transfer, though the film intentionally offers up footage of varied quality at times. The fight sequences look like flat, standard-def television broadcasts, while other sequences have a grainy, gritty documentary look. Still, the default mode of the mode is slick and polished, sporting eye-popping detail that allows the viewer to soak in every nuance of Lowell. There's a very faint layer of grain that gives the picture a nice filmic look, while blacks are deep and inky. The lossless audio is impressive throughout, particularly during the aforementioned fight scenes. These moments are rowdy, nuanced and immersive; really delivering the "you are there" experience. Elsewhere, dialogue is mostly clean and clear (at least as much as it can be given the thick accents) and the classic rock-driven soundtrack bursts through with rumbling energy.
An average-sized supplemental package is available for your viewing pleasure, kicking off with a sturdy, no-nonsense commentary from Russell. For those who don't want to spend two hours soaking in Russell's comments, the 30-minute "The Warrior's Code: Filming The Fighter" is a strong making-of piece that covers similar territory (plus it features participation from most of the major cast and crew members). "Keeping the Faith" (9 minutes) spotlights the real-life characters the film is based on, while a handful of deleted scenes mostly offer more Christian Bale material. Finally, you get a trailer and a DVD copy of the film which also contains a digital copy.
As someone who has grown all too weary of formulaic sports films, let me assure you that The Fighter is a refreshing change of pace. The destination may be the same, but the richness of the journey gives the destination quite an emotional wallop.
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