I’ll admit I had little to no expectations for “The Fighter” primarily because the stylish trailers have made it feel almost like a clone of the Channing Tatum clunker “Fighting,” when in reality it’s truly an Oscar caliber drama about a man who has the potential to become a boxing legend, but cannot escape the clutches of a family who refuses to let him rise above their lower class pit of despair, regret, and broken dreams. “The Fighter” is based on the true story of Mickey Ward, a low level boxer out of Boston who dreams of becoming the legend his brother Dickey touts himself as.
In the prologue to the film we basically see the parallel worlds of this family, one man who is a complete burn out and thinks of himself as an unspoken hero while Mickey is a young fit man who is capable of becoming so much better than the people around him. While the narrative is essentially about Mickey’s rise to boxing supremacy, the true centerpiece is Mickey’s relationship with his family, all of whom are possessive, manipulative, and self-destructive and seem to want nothing more than to bring Mickey down to their den of misery to satisfy their own insecurities. Mickey is surrounded by parasites and fair weathered family members convinced he is nothing without them.
Upon his first major bout, he arrives in a limo at a crack house where his brother appears late and high as a kite tagging along to watch Mickey be beaten senseless in a fight he’s completely unprepared for. Christian Bale is fantastic as the burn out older brother of Mickey whose own delusions keep him fueled in a life of hard drugs, and a mother who does little to nothing to help him finally straighten up his life. Much like Mickey she is comfortable in her delusions that situations will work themselves out, and almost coddles Mickey when he admits to his own terrible acts of crime and drug use. If there’s anyone set for Oscar gold this year it’s indeed Melissa Leo, a dominant shrew of a woman who has more children than she can count and refuses to let them out of their sight.
Like Mickey, she is in desperate need of a wake up call and has no idea that she poison in her own son’s well being. With the chance meeting of sexy bartender Charlene one night, Mickey forms an unusual relationship with her and is able to gain some sense of identity in his journey to fame in a land of crushed dreams and apathy all the while being forced to take a second look at his life and wonder if any of it has been beneficial to his success. What inevitably follows is a form of enlightenment for Mickey who begins to shed his oppressors and find some sense of fulfillment in his life that doesn’t revolve around people deciding what’s best for him. The conflict and confusion is well conveyed by star Wahlberg who is dazzling as the aging boxer looking for bout of victory walking out of the shadows of his older brother who refuses to let him have the spotlight, even when he’s proclaiming to work for his brother’s well being.
He lives on the lie that he beat Sugar Ray Leonard and through his incessant bragging is a man who has failed. While many viewers will see this as an underdog sports story, deep down it’s very much about a young man breaking free from the shackles of his destructive family’s legacy and finding his own sense of identity that ultimately grants him personal success in the sports world and in his own world. So much better than I originally assumed it would be, “The Fighter” is a gripping and engrossing drama about the power of family, and how sometimes they can hurt so much more than help. Stars Wahlberg and Bale are superb and O. Russell impresses with one of the year’s best.