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‘The Fighter’ gets you in the gut

Thursday, December 16, 2010


Grade: B+

Credits: Stars Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo. Directed by David O. Russell.

Running time: 1:54

Rating: R for language, drug content, some violence and sexuality.

By Rick Bentley

McClatchy Newspapers

There’s so much natural drama in the real boxing story of half-brothers Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund, all director David O. Russell had to do was cast the right people to have a solid hit with “The Fighter.”

Ward’s road to winning boxing championships was emotionally brutal, especially dealing with an abusive mother and self-destructive sibling.

Russell cast Mark Wahlberg to play Ward, the young Lowell, Mass., boxer held back in his training by the drug-addicted Dicky. The director needed an actor who could handle the physicality of a boxing movie and had enough onscreen presence to be the anchor to all the wild characters in Ward’s life.

Wahlberg has shown he can hold an audience with films like “The Lovely Bones” and “The Departed.” As for the boxing part, he spent more than three years getting into physical shape to handle the role.

Wahlberg needed to be at his best — especially as an actor — because no one is better at playing larger-than-life characters than Christian Bale. It took an actor of the caliber of Bale to bring the proper range to play Eklund, a former boxer himself who’s lived years off the glory of a wisp of boxing success.

Bale’s acting arch has him play Eklund from a physically strapped, social mess to a true support for Ward. Playing the part took the usual Bale metamorphosis — going from gaunt to healthy for the stages of Eklund’s life.

Both actors are very good, but they get blown off the screen by Melissa Leo, who plays their mother Alice Ward. She’s a passive-aggressive minion of hell who makes every past bad film mom look like June Cleaver. Leo’s Oscar-worthy portrayal of Alice as a master manipulator goes beyond acting to a total transformation.

Most directors would be blessed to have three such first-rate performances. But Russell also gets the best dramatic performance of Amy Adams’ career. She plays Micky’s feisty girlfriend Charlene, who is strong but still flawed.

These performances more than balance the lack of energy in the boxing and training parts of ’The Fighter.” A boxing match isn’t that interesting to watch when it’s little more than scenes of someone’s face being punched.

But this isn’t a boxing movie. It’s a very human story about how the quest for fame and fortune can be deeply damaging, as told by a group of remarkable players.