The Fighter was a movie that was being worked by Darren Aronofsky and the reins were eventually handed over to David O. Russell. At this point he needed a victory as much as the subject matter. It has been a long six years since I Heart Huckabees, which was a critical failure. Since tapes have surfaced of Russell mishandling a set and one of his projects was completely canceled. This new movie could break him.
Instead it is a surprise victory. The story of Mickey Ward seems very conventional. He’s a boxer who isn’t well respected and hasn’t had a big chance yet. What’s holding him back is his two-faced family led by his brother Dicky and his mother Alice. Wisely Russell and his screenwriters focus on the journey of the family, instead of the underdog aspects of the sport.
Right away the movie plays with expectations. Mickey and Dicky (Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale) are talking to the camera for an interview. However the interviewers are not interested in Mickey, but they want to talk about Dicky’s planned comeback. This is especially odd considering Bale resembles The Machinist not Batman. It is this sort of script direction that makes this movie exciting as well as Russell’s experimenting camera.
Some elements in the movie work better than others. Amy Adams plays Charlene, the bartender who starts to date Mickey. Thankfully she wasn’t the clichéd “I don’t want you to get hurt!” sort of girlfriends, but she did have to be very blunt throughout the movie to get the ball moving. Some of it felt natural and some of it didn’t. Her being dismissive of the family makes sense from her perspective, but the film takes a more complex look.
Bale and Melissa Leo are fantastic as they never come close to villainizing their characters. There is just as much love as there is neglect every time they are on screen. There is no easy answer to what is best for Mickey and his career. Wahlberg keeps everything minimalistic almost too much. He has to be passive because that’s the core of the story, but there needs to be a little bit more. He’s solid in the ring and as a reactionary in a conversation, but when he has to step up it doesn’t always sell.
Through all of this, The Fighter sells this world and these people thanks to very solid storytelling. Hopefully this marks the creative return of Russell, a director that used to creatively turn heads back in the 90s.