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“The Fighter,” Reviewed

“The Fighter,” Reviewed (photo)

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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.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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