Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Ahhh the boxing movie; dependable stalwart of the American sports cinema. It has more critical cachet than the football movie, and is much more common than the Jamaican bobsled movie. The closest comparison, I suppose, would be to horse racing movie, horse racing being another sport that was more popular in a bygone era and is now more widely recognized in its cinematic form. But boxing is way more interesting than horse racing, mainly because it involves people and not horses. What could be more noble than the spectacle of two men using only their fists and their wits to demonstrate their courage, resilience, and value as human beings. We like boxing because it has all the brutality we need from any modern American classic and because violence and aggression are legitimized, made useful, when put inside the ring.
Nevertheless, you have to wonder each time a new boxing movie comes out if we haven't seen it all already. We know the scenes and images by heart: poetic shots of gloves slamming into cheekbones sending blood and saliva flying, rousing training montages, battered fighters getting patched up and having orders barked at them in between rounds, underdogs receiving punch after punch after punch before coming back for victory. Sure, the struggle in the ring can be complimented and mirrored by others outside of it, but there as well, almost every thing's been done. Cinderella Man had poverty, Million Dollar Baby had poverty and heavy moral issues, Rocky had some poverty, The Hurricane had racism. Raging Bull emphasized Jake La Motta's internal conflict and self-destructive tendencies and Rocky had Rocky starting out as a lazy slob. Rocky also had romance and and Rocky IV even dipped its feet in Cold War politics.
So what, I asked myself, could The Fighter, even if well-made, possibly add to such a familiar genre? Quite a lot, actually. It doesn't re-write the rule book, but like all the great boxing movies that have come before it, The Fighter has its one thing that it does differently. As far as I know, it's the only one where the main threat comes from the characters outside of the ring. "Really, no one's done that before?", you might ask. Well, possibly in some lesser boxing movie, but I doubt that it's ever been taken as far as it has here. That seemingly insignificant tweak in the boxing formula is what sets the movie up on its path to greatness.
The Fighter, which sticks closely to the real story of welterweight champion Mickey Ward, focuses mainly on the shaky and often unhealthy relationship he had with his family. Micky, played by Walbherg, is the sensitive strongman; he's soft spoken and--when he's not trying to cut up his oponents--gentle. His mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), brother, Dicky (Christian Bale), and 7 sisters are not gentle and definitely not soft spoken. They never exactly manipulate Micky, but they do get him to do what they think is best for him, and what they think is best usually ends up holding him back. Dicky is an unreliable heroin junkie, but Mickey depends on him to train. Alice refuses to acknowledge Dicky's exacerbating condition and keeps booking Mickey in the wrong fights. And Micky has been told what to do for so long that he's unable to tell them what he needs.
It's not hard, however, to see why Micky is so powerless. Melissa Leo and Christian Bale are fearsome enough to take the resolve out of anyone, and they leave the audience in a state of rapt obedience as well. Both of them are now famous for being expletive throwing loudmouths off the screen, but these performances (both of which garnered them Oscars) are something else. Bale, cocky arrogant bastard that he is, has transformed himself into an even more wiry and explosive cocky arrogant bastard, while still managing to be funny and sympathetic. He's also a good deal thinner than should be healthy, having lost 40 pounds, although this isn't an unusual step for an actor who seems to derive great satisfaction from emaciating himself (see The Machinist and Rescue Dawn). Watching Leo's Alice clash with Micky's similarly opinionated and hard-headed "MTV-girl" girlfriend, Charlene (Amy Adams) is as entertaining as any boxing match.
Let's not forget Mark Walbergh. His role, despite being the lead, doesn't give him the same opportunities to show off as Bale's or Leo's do, but he grabs our attention using more discreet methods. When boxing, Micky knows when to be passive, taking a seemingly endless series of punches before finally unleashing his own force, and Walbergh has the same kind of patience; his character is submissive for much of the movie, which makes it even sweeter when he finally takes matters into his own hands. And as entertaining as Bale and Leo are to watch, the movie would have been too tiring without Walbergh keeping things steady at its center.
The Fighter is Mark's movie in more ways than one. He's the avid boxing fan who grew up 30 minutes away from Lowell, Massachusetts, followed Mickey's story, and eventually befriended Micky and Dicky while getting their support for the film. He hired David O. Russel to direct his project, which was a wise choice. David seems to have helped the film mainly by doing everything right, striking a perfect balance between Hollywood sheen and hard-to-watch realism. The movie is dirty and gritty but not somber. It's light on its feet and always entertaining while staying rooted in a very authentic--and authentically depressing--urban landscape. The Fighter has a much stronger connection with Lowell than Ben Affleck's The Town had with Charlestown earlier this year. This is the one that really makes me wish I didn't know how to pronounce my r's. And because of Walbergh and Russel's passion for the sport of boxing and its players, it's one of those rare movies that makes me really understand what it means to give or receive a punch in the face.