You need two things to be a great boxer: technique and heart. Knowing how to throw a punch won’t get you very far if you also don’t know how to take one. Acting is the same way: all the technical proficiency in the world will get you nowhere if you can’t use it to move the audience.
Christian Bale is the rare kind of actor who has that Muhammad Ali-esque blend of technique and heart. His accents are impeccable and his ability to mold his body for a role, whether it’s gaining muscle for Batman or withering away to play a sickly insomniac in “The Machinist,” is remarkable. But all of the physical stuff is just the window dressing that enables him to connect with his characters on a deeper emotional level. To play washed up boxer Dickie Eklund in “The Fighter” Bale perfected a Boston accent, became a convincing physical trainer, and dropped a ton of weight again, but none of that is as impressive as the moment near the end of the film where he simply sits on a couch and fights back tears as he talks about how proud he is of his brother.
His brother — technically his half-brother, since they only share a mother — is “Irish” Micky Ward, played by Mark Wahlberg. Though Micky is a talented fighter in his own right, he’s lived his entire life in his older brother’s shadow and though “The Fighter” is ostensibly a biopic about Micky, Wahlberg spends the entire movie in Bale’s. Though Micky has the comeback, Dickie is the one who gets redemption. He’s the guy who faces his demons (drug addiction, self-pity) and becomes a stronger man. He’s the guy who has the film’s biggest confrontation with Micky’s tempestuous girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams). There’s a tension in “The Fighter” about who it’s ultimately about, Micky or Dickie, that would make other films feel sloppy or unfocused. But since that same tension defined the relationship between Dickie and Micky in real life, it only makes sense that it would also define the movie about that relationship.
The film is called “The Fighter” but it’s too bad there already was a “Cinderella Man” because that title would have worked better. Not only was Micky Ward’s life a cinderella story, his own family treated him less like a blood relative than a live-in employee. His mother and manager Alice (Melissa Leo) and his seven sisters count on Micky as the breadwinner, and there are times where they seem far more concerned about a fight purse than the health of their son and brother. When one of Micky’s opponents drops out of a match at the last second, the only available replacement is a man twenty pounds heavier than Micky. In boxing terms, that’s basically suicide. Micky doesn’t want to fight, but if he doesn’t, nobody gets paid. So he fights, or more accurately, he accepts a merciless beating.
Until a hokey third act reversal, Alice is portrayed by Leo as bit of a monster: a cold mooch who exploits her son’s talents while doting on his crackhead brother. And Micky’s shrill sisters are her squad of big-mouthed, big-haired yes men. Though “The Fighter” ultimately affirms the importance of the bond between Dickie and Micky, it also doesn’t shy away from the fact that Micky’s greatest enemy is his bloodsucking entourage. Which is interesting when you consider that Wahlberg is the executive producer and inspiration for the television series “Entourage,” a feel-good show about the pleasures of having a group of people you spend every day with and who depend on you for their livelihood. “The Fighter” plays at times like Wahlberg’s rejection of the values he celebrated in “Entourage.” I don’t know; maybe he’s gotten sick of buying cars for people or something.
The film was directed by David O. Russell, the man who made “I Heart Huckabees” and the brilliant Iraq war thriller “Three Kings.” He places most of his attention on Ward with his family, which is amusingly deranged in a way that reminded me a little of the family his earlier film “Flirting With Disaster.” Instead of stylizing Micky’s fights “Raging Bull”-style, Russell goes for naturalism: using TV cameras and setups to capture the big bouts, even employing the real HBO analysts who covered Ward’s matches in real life and having them recite the actual commentary they said the first time around. As a result, the boxing looks and sounds a lot like the real thing (the matches in the film are on YouTube if you want to compare) and I suspect that over time “The Fighter” will accrue a cult following among boxing aficionados as a rare film that got the sport they love right.
Like the Eklunds and Wards, “The Fighter” is a bit of a mess. It’s sloppy and it takes a while to get its act together. Once it does, though, it works, and the big fights between Micky and Alfonso Sanchez and Shea Neary send that tingle up your spine that you demand from any good inspirational sports movie. Still, “The Fighter” belongs to Bale, who will almost certainly get an Oscar nomination for his performance, and deservedly so. I would say he’s unforgettable as Dickie Eklund, but in this case, the opposite would be a bigger compliment. Most actors have baggage. They carry their great roles around with them throughout their careers. When we watch Harrison Ford, we’re always watching Indiana Jones and Han Solo too. But Bale somehow manages to make every performance feel like his debut. He slips so completely inside his characters, we lose the actor and see only the person he’s playing. Bale’s so good, and he’s always so good, that he’s totally forgettable.