It’s easy to write off sports movies nowadays, as they’ve become predictable affairs that do their utmost to cram messages about overcoming social inequalities and unearned feel-goodness down our throats. The days of Rocky and, although I hesitate to label it a sports film, Raging Bull, have seemingly long since passed. I’d chalk that up to the respective games themselves and the popular theme of sportsmanship taking precedent when the focus should be on the player and his journey, and as you might guess from its title, The Fighter totally gets that…otherwise it would have been called Boxing. I mean, why root for a guy when you know nothing about him? Here, the family fights hold just as much dramatic weight as the ones in the ring, and through this The Fighter has made itself a top contender in its genre alongside the aforementioned boxing-drama heavyweights Rocky and Raging Bull. If you don’t believe me, its Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress and Best Supporting Actor and its wins in the latter two categories should instill confidence. My full review of the Blu-ray after the jump.
Director David O. Russell’s The Fighter is based on the true story of professional boxer “Irish” Micky Ward’s (Mark Wahlberg) years of training in Lowell, Massachusetts and numerous losses as a “stepping stone”- explained to be a boxer played against more accomplished fighters to advance their rankings-until his eventual welterweight title shot against Shea Neary in 2000. Lowell is depicted as a close-knit, poor blue collar neighborhood-Micky and his brother Dick Eklund (Christian Bale) are street pavers-but it’s not his environment that has prevented Micky from reaching his full potential…it’s his misplaced, undying loyalty to his greedy mother Alice (Melissa Leo), crack-addicted brother Dicky and litter of couch potato sisters (factoid: one of whom is played by Conan O’Brien’s sis) who serve as his manager, trainer and unofficial advisors, respectively. ‘White trash’ might be a harsh label, but it’s the first impression that comes to mind. What’s more, Micky is never allowed to forget that he’s living in the shadow of his brother, who desperately clings to his short-lived pro career by obsessing over his only claim to fame: knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard during an HBO event. Despite this past success, Dicky’s ongoing struggle with drugs has made him an unreliable trainer to Micky and the unknowing star of an HBO documentary about crack addiction, forcing the Ward/Eklund family into the public’s critical eye at a time when familial tension is already peaking. Against these odds, it’s Micky’s courting of Charlene Fleming (Amy Adams), a local bartender and no-nonsense gal, and his love for boxing that keep him fighting.
The film’s choice to flesh out the family dynamic in order to show just what Micky is up against both in his matches and at home is its strongest element and what separates it from the rest of the pack, but it was an artistic gamble in that the project would have crashed and burned without the right cast to keep it on its feet. The Fighter leans heavily on the performances of its actors, and there’s not a single weak link in the cast. Mark Wahlberg can be hit or miss, but here his staple mix of whining and machismo proves to be the perfect blend for an underdog. As indicated by their Oscar wins, the standouts however are Melissa Leo and Christian Bale. While Bale’s physical transformation is impressive and displays a clear professionalism and commitment, it’s nothing we didn’t already know he was capable of or willing to do beforehand-he dropped from 180 to 120lbs for The Machinist and immediately built himself up to 200lbs for Batman Begins once it wrapped. Bale looks like a balding corpse in this, but it’s his restraint in his depiction of an outrageously quirky character, authentic and unwavering accent, and likeability that make it a fun, human and transfixing performance that never slips into a caricature. He’s the real star of the show. Melissa Leo’s portrayal of Alice is equally commanding, and she’ll get under your skin. She plays her as a drama queen, cocky and selfish…all endearing qualities for a mother. Although it doesn’t reinvent the formula, the screenplay-also nominated-deserves a mention here. This is mature writing with a great combination of family strife, brotherly love, humor and romance, and the actor’s performances would have been dead in the water without it.
The film’s soundtrack is another one of The Fighter’s strong suits. It’s comprised of songs you’d expect to find in the tape deck of Micky’s POS car. They complement the action perfectly and are integrated into the scenes at times-Whitesnake’s “Here I go Again” is heard throughout and ends up being the entrance music to which he and Dicky sing to pump him up.
Lastly for the pro’s, the cinematography was simple and confident. There were some cool shots, such as the camera going in and out of focus as it follows the cord of a telephone to the ear of its holder, but it never tries to be flashy. And while I’ve heard complaints regarding the way the boxing matches were filmed to resemble HBO coverage, I loved it. It adds familiarity for the viewer and throws us into the fervor of the event with shots of the crowds, family, corner trainers and a 360 degree view of the fight.
There’s not much negative to say about The Fighter. However, despite its best efforts to do otherwise, it cannot always escape the clichés of the inspirational sports genre. There’s a moment when Micky tells his daughter, who lives with his ex, that he’ll win his next fight and get a place with more space for her to stay over. The girl thrusts both fists into the air and joyously exclaims, “Yeah, bigger apartment!”. Another example would be when Micky shows his face in a diner following a loss he had been touting as a surefire win only to have the customers bow and shake their heads at him in shame. These moments can be cringe-inducing, but they were inevitable and are few and far between. My only other gripe is that the climactic final fight felt a tad rushed.
The Blu-Ray of The Fighter, presented in 1080p high-def, is accompanied by both a DVD and Digital Copy of the film; always welcome additions. The video quality, while nothing special, is solid and certainly superior to the DVD. Granted, the film has a low-key visual style to begin with and has never sold itself as an ultimate high-definition experience or even a big-screen event back in its December theatrical run. There’s just enough grain balance in the background to maintain the look of film and the subtle handheld documentary vibe of the cinematography. It also adds texture to the sweat and grit inherent in boxing and the blue collar roots of Lowell. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, meanwhile, is disappointing for a film so focused on rock songs, punches and dialogue, as it never strikes the appropriate balance. The movie’s soundtrack, while awesome, is overbearing and cuts into the character’s lines here and there when the guitar solos are blaring. As for the dialogue on its own, it sounded a little muted which doesn’t help when the Boston accents are occasionally on the thick side.
There is a generous helping of special features on this Blu-Ray, presented in high-definition. “The Warrior’s Code: Filming The Fighter” is your typical EPK material with egocentric back-patting abound, but interviews with the real Micky and Dicky as well as footage of Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale training with and studying them in their gym were worth the look. In that same vein, the “Keeping the Faith” feature showcases a number of interviews with Micky, Dicky and a slew of miscellaneous family members discussing how boxing runs in the Ward/Eklund blood. Also available are a commentary by David O. Russell and a bunch of deleted scenes.