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Sunday, January 2, 2011

Film Review | The Fighter

He Ain't Heavy, He's My Half-Brother

by Thomas Delapa

Some labors of love are just labors.

It took actor/producer Mark Wahlberg five long years to wrestle The Fighter to the screen. In the story of welterweight boxer “Irish” Micky Ward and his drug-addict half-brother Dicky, Wahlberg sparred with a tag-team of directors (like Darren Aronofsky) and co-stars (including Brad Pitt), before settling on David O. Russell and Christian Bale. To his credit, Wahlberg never did throw in the towel, though that doesn’t mean dazed audiences won’t want to.

Any boxing movie made since champs like Rocky and Raging Bull faces long odds. On one hand (or fist), there’s Rocky’s ethnic blue-collar, underdog formula to contend with. On the other is Raging Bull’s brutal naturalism and superbly choreographed fight scenes. While The Fighter battles to be its own movie, it ends up on the ropes, done in by a lightweight plot and a flabby midsection.

In this 1990s biopic of Boston-area blood brothers and foul-mouthed family feuding, Wahlberg’s Micky should be the main event. Instead, The Departed star steps aside for Bale's Dicky, Micky’s crack-addicted, sometime-trainer brother. Gaunt, wired and wild-eyed, Bale is a moving target, rarely standing still long enough to connect with the audience. An ex-boxer himself who once fought the legendary Sugar Ray Leonard, Dicky now takes his blows at the local crack house, giving new meaning to the phrase “rope-a-dope.”

While Bale answers every bell with madly Methodical intensity, the soft-spoken, near-ascetic Wahlberg always seems to be shadow-boxing with the gloves on. Russell and Wahlberg so knock themselves out building this movie from the outside with streetwise cred, they give Micky a pedestrian treatment. Yo Adrian, this Fighter is short on fight.

Outside of the ring, Russell takes some amusing jabs at Micky’s crass, loud-mouthed mother (Melissa Leo) and her entourage of seven shrewish daughters. But even these big-haired harpies are too grotesque to be funny, except as lumpy punching bags. The catalyst for Micky’s break from his family is Charlene (Amy Adams), a tough, straight-shooting bartender whom he slowly wins over to his corner. Beside the flurry of family squabbles, Bale and Leo do score a few points for a running gag that shows Dicky defenestrating himself out of the crack house to escape his mother’s wrath.

Though The Fighter wears its blue-collar squalor around its neck like a medal, there’s nothing fancy about its footwork, least of all in the obligatory rock-music montages celebrating Micky’s boyhood roots in the ‘hood. Round 1 of his rise to the top kicks off with the ubiquitous (and misdated) “How You Like Me Now?” by the Heavy. Answer: Not so much.

Even more routine is Micky’s Rocky road to triumph once he beats down his Freudian baggage and pounces back into the ring with the eye of the tiger. With a leaner, punchier script, maybe The Fighter could have been a contender. However you score it, it’s no heavyweight.


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