Mark Wahlberg is practically compelled to deliver an understated lead performance in The Fighter, given that there’s little room to extravagantly emote while in the presence of Christian Bale and Melissa Leo chewing scenery like starving artists. In David O. Russell’s inspired-by-actual-events story, Wahlberg is Lowell, Massachusetts boxer “Irish” Micky Ward, a “stepping stone” for better welterweight pugilists whose flatlined professional trajectory in the mid ’90s is due less to so-so talent than to his caretakers, mother Alice (Leo) and brother Dickie (Bale). With a big blond coiffure, short skirts, and layers of makeup, Alice is a boxing manager fit for The Housewives of Middlesex County, a chain-smoking loudmouth who uses family-abandonment guilt trips to keep loyal Micky under her wing. If her help does nothing but hurt, however, she’s still not as destructive an influence on Micky as brother Dickie. A former pro once dubbed “The Pride of Lowell” for knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard in a publicized fight, Dickie has since devolved into a fidgety crack addict pitifully living off his middling past glory, and a bottom-feeder attempting to profit from, and relive his career through, his younger sibling, all while neglecting his duties as Micky’s manager in order to puff the pipe and, as with one fight, throwing him to the wolves to make a quick buck.
Russell bookends his narrative with sit-down interviews conducted by HBO for a documentary that’s initially billed as a piece on Dickie’s “comeback” but turns out to be a nonfiction look at crack addiction. This tension between dreams and reality proves a tantalizing undercurrent, but as with its storytelling framework, The Fighter is, in terms of structure and tone, as traditional as a left-right combo. Having previously exhibited a flair for somber, idiosyncratic black comedy with Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees, Russell here sublimates any writing/directing eccentricities for unadventurous formula. His film is awash in familiar elements: familial and romantic conflicts; local working-class flavor, most of it delivered by Mickey’s garish big-haired Bahstan-caricature sisters; and easy-bake training and fight montages set to Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith. Kudos to the director for the not-inconsiderable feat of imbuing Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again on My Own” (Micky’s ring-entrance music) with thematic import. Yet this bit of sly humor is otherwise absent from Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson’s script, which remains throughout a doggedly literal emotional and psychological affair. Aside from some Raging Bull-style flourishes, Russell choreographs and shoots scenes of interpersonal squabbling and in-ring fisticuffs with competent but unremarkable efficiency, leaving the proceedings devoid of distinctive authorial personality.
Regardless of one’s prior knowledge about Micky, The Fighter’s conventionality negates mystery regarding its protagonist’s championship fortunes. Consequently, drama primarily emerges from Micky’s attempts—with the aid of loving bartender girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams)—to divorce himself from, then create a new, stable have-it-both-ways relationship with, the selfish relatives who purport to have his back. Russell’s fondness for close-ups of women’s legs is matched by his general refusal to get in his actors’ way, and as a result his triumphant tale is defined by the cast’s unbridled showboating. As the overbearing, hard-as-nails Alice, Leo struts, smirks, and swears with uninhibited voraciousness, and even with an underwritten role, Adams works hard to keep up with her hammy co-stars, be it through rampant regionally accented profanity or strutting about in lingerie with an inviting mixture of toughness and tenderness.
Ultimately, though, this is Bale’s show, a resurrection of his The Machinist routine in which scary weight loss, resulting in skeletal gauntness, merely calls further attention to the look-at-me nature of his performance. His twitchy, spastic, volatile embodiment of Dickie is overacting in the purest sense of the term, all flailing limbs, bug eyes, spaced-out reveries, rampaging outbursts, and self-conscious mannerisms. It’s also, however, often convincingly soulful and consistently magnetic, the very type of larger-than-life big Hollywood turn that an otherwise staid underdog-makes-good saga like this downright demands.