The Fighter is Rocky for the new generation with Mark Wahlberg resurrecting Marlon Brando from On The Waterfront whilst Christian Bale performs like a crack-addicted Jester. Micky Ward (Wahlberg) is a boxer managed by his chain smoking mother (Melissa Leo) and trained by his crack-head brother Dicky (Bale). After years of being the meal ticket for other boxers he finally has to choose between the champion he could be and the family dining out on his mediocrity.
Obviously The Fighter is not breaking new ground here. Rocky set the precedence for underdog boxing movies then Raging Bull threw in the “based on a true story” towel. When you consider the problems The Fighter had in production it appears the majority of Hollywood feels the same. Scorsese wouldn’t take the script and Aronofsky left mid-production to make Black Swan. The project finally fell into the lap of David O. Russell at Bale’s request. The Fighter appears to be a case of life imitating Art, the underdog battling for his shot at the championship.
So was it really worth all the effort? In short: Yes. The fight scenes look fantastic and recreate the actual bouts using the same HBO cameras from the original footage. However, these take a back seat to the real drama. Like Raging Bull, The Fighter is more concerned about the family tensions and relationships than two Goliaths beating seven shades of the proverbial out of each other in the ring.
So far, so dull but it is the element of comedy that really sets The Fighter apart from its heavy weight rivals. Dicky Ecklund hurls himself from first story windows at the first sign of danger (or his mother) and his actions are normally met with a shrug of the shoulders which make him both lovable and infuriating to his brother. This is obviously done to heighten the emotional punch of his downfall and resulting butterfly-chrysalis rebirth, but if we are honest we preferred his mischievous charms.
Christian Bale did his magic yo-yo diet for the role and it is astonishing to see him play a role that actually involves smiling. He is an actor so dedicated to his craft that occasionally it does feel a little try-hard, but then as the real Dicky and Micky are shown in the credits. It appears that Bale is, as usual, perfect.
As the main driving force off-screen it is surprising that Wahlberg allows Bale to steal the show. This is his baby; surely he should be reaping the acclaim? But it just shows how attuned Wahlberg is to the character that he portrays. In the same way that Micky Ward allows Dicky to hog the limelight in reality – Wahlberg allows Bale the room to perform. He is the eye of the storm that only becomes visible when the hurricane dissipates.
Despite hitting every convention of a sports movie, The Fighter does it in a way which feels fresh and powerful. You know who wins before the first bell but the emotional battles Micky fights give his eventual victory added gravitas. It is the perfect right-left combination of Raging Bull’s character study and Rocky’s poignancy. Also, Raging Bull was released in 1980 and the Rocky saga (excluding late additions) spanned 1976-1990. Although they remain timeless to many, thirty years is a long time to reign as champion. The Fighter is the new generation breaking through, still learning from the masters but with just enough youthfulness to catch you off guard.