The quartet at its heart — Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo and Mark Wahlberg — wholly inhabit their characters and wash away most everything they’ve done in the past. And what’s even better is how perfectly they complement each other in this down-and-dirty “true story” boxing drama.
“Irish” Micky Ward, as the “On the Waterfront” line goes, “coulda been a contender.” But if this asphalt worker in Lowell, Massachusetts isn’t a contender, he doesn’t have to look far for reasons. There’s his low-life manager mom (Melissa Leo at her very trashiest). She books him into fights he has no chance in just to get the payday. Micky is the one who has to deal with the bloody bludgeonings that are a consequence of her naivete (promoters take advantage of her) and selfishness.
And then there’s his older brother, Dicky Eklund. He was the first boxer in the family, a mug whose great claim to fame was going the distance against Sugar Ray Leonard, even knocking the guy down.
“I heard he slipped,” everybody jokes to Dicky. But it’s no laughing matter to the former “Pride of Lowell.” Dickie’s fallen on hard times. He’s an irredeemable junkie who makes a show of hiding his addiction from his mother, who makes a show of not seeing it. And he’s played with all the crazy-eyed fury and desperation Christian Bale can muster, a lovable, happy-go-lucky train wreck who can’t stay sober, can’t stay out of trouble and who insists on training his brother, the younger guy who still has a shot. Dicky is a constant let-down, but try as he might, Mickey can’t break free from Dickie, his mother or his family. He’s the glue that holds them all together.
Then comes the sassy barmaid who blows it all up. Sweet little Amy Adams is a revelation as Charlene, a foul-mouthed gum-snapping wisegal who doesn’t take any guff, especially from some boxing street paver.
“I heard you’re a stepping stone,” she says. Yeah, she’s heard of “Irish” Micky. But she’s the kind of girl impressed when a guy slaps around a customer who gets fresh with her, so it’s on. Charlene can hold her own, even with Micky’s gaggle of tough-broad sisters, women with names like Red Dog and Pork. They hate her college girl pedigree and deride her as “this MTV girl” that’s coming between Micky and his family. But with Charlene providing the spine, Micky sets the table to finally get his last shot, at 31.
David O’ Russell’s film immerses us in this milieu and in this noisy, quarrelsome clan and its hold on Micky. The level of realism (non-actors take on some roles) helps us invest in the story, and with the great villains of the piece being family members, we can no more write them off than Micky can.
“The Fighter” is a conventional boxing picture, with its plucky underdog, its hatefully hilarious and trashy family holding him back and “that one last shot” that we all hope we get. Wahlberg has convincingly played sports figures before (“Invincible”), but his Micky feels so lived-in that this performance transcends anything he’s ever done. Bale’s maniacal commitment to Dicky’s every tick and foible, Leo’s sexually charged monster mom and Adams’ almost feral transformation from Disney princess make this an acting showcase that’s sure to be remembered, come Oscar time.
Cast: Christian Bale, Mark Wahlberg, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo
Director: David O. Russell
Running time: 1 hour 54 minutes
Rating: R for language throughout, drug content, some violence and sexuality.