Friday, December 17, 2010

"The Fighter" Delivers in Every Round

By Tony Mangia

The film "The Fighter", a true story about "Irish" Mickey Ward's improbable road to the world light welterweight title will not disappoint film or boxing fans alike.  It is one of the most absorbing and realistic boxing films ever made.

Every film about the sweet science will forever be compared to Martin Scorcese's brilliant bio-pic "Raging Bull" about the savage Jake LaMotta and "The Fighter" can proudly say it goes toe-to-toe with the classic.  It delivers on every front--including the ring action and the characters who revolve around it.

The film, directed by David O. Russell, tells the real-life story of Ward--played by an un-whiny and understated, Mark Wahlberg--and his half-brother Dicky Eklund--played to hyper-perfection by Christian Bale--a once promising fighter who lives for the crack pipe.  Eklund, whose claim to fame was knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard years ago, trains Ward through the haze of a crack smoke and salvaging his failed career through his loyal younger brother.

Eklund is delusional and thinks the HBO crew following him around is doing a story about the 40 year-old's "comeback," when, in reality, they are doing a series about crack addiciton.

It's a time-honored plot, but the script and Russell's direction are flawless.  "The Fighter" grabs your interest from the opening soundtrack and doesn't let go.  At first, Bale's cartoonish Eklund comes of as a stereotype, but when you realize he is playing a speeding, bug-eyed crackhead you understand his non-stop clowning and body movements are typical of a lot of street guys.  When the real Eklund chatters away during the final credits, you realize how right on Bale is with his portrayal.

The film isn't so much about boxing as it is about deep-rooted loyalty between the blue-collar Lowell, Massachusetts brothers and his family.  Ward is managed by his mom Alice--played by a tough-talking Melissa Leo--and surrounded by his seven blue-eyed and blue-mouthed sisters.  Russell captures the working class lingo and neighborhood.  You can almost smell the stale beer in an opening bar scene.

The gritty film is not as nasty as "Raging Bull" and doesn't delve into the lead character like a Rocky Balboa in the original "Rocky", but it has a little of both.

Ward's dilemma is whether or not to dump his brother--whom he idolizes-- as his trainer because the older brother continues to jeopardize the younger fighter's career with his drug abuse.  Ward breaks away from Eklund and their mother and teams with a new crew.  Ward finally finds stability in his life along with some respect, but he fast tracks up the ranks with a heavy heart.

Russell doesn't shove sentimentality down your throat, he doesn't explain or teach you how to box or pass judgement on any character.  It's there on the screen.  If you get it, you get it.

While the fight scenes aren't as lush as Michael Chapman's gorgeous slow-motion black-and-white photography in "Raging Bull", but they ring truer.  The punches look and feel real. The audience is not subjected to close-ups of bloodied faces or punches spreading sweat across the screen and the fight scenes inter cut with real HBO footage are sensational.  Wahlberg has an uncanny resemblance to the real Ward, so it is hard to distinguish between the real HBO tapes--and there are plenty--and the new shots with Wahlberg.  The final fight in the movie is a rousing few minutes and will have you cheering for Ward.

What sets the fight scenes in "The Fighter" apart from any other boxing film is the realism.  When Wahlberg covers up on the ropes you can feel the body shots.  Russell captures the powerful drudgery of a fight--the constant pounding on a fighter's ribs and the ducking and weaving.  The director doesn't portray boxing as orchestrated knock-out punches but as the slow, tiresome wearing down of an opponent.  You feel the twelve rounds of pain.

"The Fighter" avoids the cliches of other boxing films.  There is no long training montage or sentimental speeches.  It's about the little things.  A scene where Ward enters his tiny bare-boned cave of a gym, without his brother in his corner, and notices a nice new and bigger speed bag rings true.  He taps at the unworn equipment and says, "New bag? It looks like a beach ball."  The new bag shines as a symbol of his new start, but not without apprehension.

Russell shows the loneliness of a journeyman boxer.  There is Ward after a loss, bandaged and waking up alone in his tiny apartment.  No entourage.  No bling.  For every Floyd Mayweather Jr. or Manny Pacquiao, there are thousands of broken fighters and battered faces hanging on to a dream.

While "The Wrestler" showed the piss and puss of that sport, Russell lets you in on the mundane life of a boxer and how easy it is for the  endless line of wannabes, and the ones who almost make it, to get spit out like Eklund.

There is very little to cringe at in this film.  The middle drags some after Eklund ends up in prison and Ward falls for his pushy muse, Charlene--played by Amy Adams--but the dialog and fight action ring true to life and keeps your attention.  You actually care about these characters.  There isn't one "wicked" that comes from character's mouth the whole film.

If there was one thing that I--as a boxing fan--would have wanted to see is some footage of Ward's three epic fights with Arturo Gatti, but I suppose that could be a feature film in itself.

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