(L-R) Mickey O’Keefe, playing himself, Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale (Photo courtesy Paramount Pictures)
2010, Paramount, 116 min., R
By William Wiggins
I’m not exactly sure what it is about boxing and the movies, but for some reason Tinseltown seems to have a love affair with the sweet sport. In addition to football and baseball, films about boxing have yielded some great cinema. From 1949’s “The Setup,” to the 1962 Rod Serling classic “Requiem For A Heavyweight,” to 1976’s iconic “Rocky” and the 1980 Scorcese classic “Raging Bull,” which some have called the best film ever made, to modern day classics such as “Cinderella Man” and “Million Dollar Baby,” film fans and indeed Oscar voters love boxing flicks.
This past year, “The Fighter” stepped into the ring as the latest contender for the title of best boxing film. The third film collaboration for director David O. Russell and Mark Wahlberg (in addition to “Three Kings” and “I Heart Huckabees”), the biographical film centers on the life of real-life pro boxer “Irish” Micky Ward (Wahlberg) and his older half-brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale).
A welterweight from the wrong side of the tracks, Irish-American Dicky is the pride of working-class Lowell, Massachusetts. Living in his shadow is his half-brother and sparring partner Micky. After fighting Sugar Ray Leonard, Eklund plunges into a nightmare of crack addiction, a disappointment to his family that they try their best to deal with by buying into his talk of a comeback. Micky becomes their new hope, fighting his own fight and making his mark in the ring.
Wahlberg did the film in large part based on his friendship with Ward, the two having their blue-collar inner-city upbringing in common. Wahlberg considers Ward every bit the local hero, and wears it on his sleeve in his version of Micky, but it’s also to his credit that he’s nuanced about it, giving lots of room to his co-stars.
Nowhere is this more apparent that in his scenes with Bale, who took the part of Dicky when both Brad Pitt and Matt Damon had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts. It’s the movie’s good fortune things turned out as they did. Bale immersed himself in Dicky, virtually disappearing into the part. He’s captivating, riveting, a dead ringer for Dicky, so much so that you have to look hard to find any trace of Bale himself. Best Supporting Actor should be a no-brainer for Oscar this year.
In the role of Charlene, the bartender who captures Micky’s affections, Amy Adams goes a long way to distance herself from some of her lovely, but otherwise fluffy work, driving home the character of a street-wise sexy bi**h, who’s still a sweetheart at her core when it comes to the man she loves.
Among the real-life Lowell, Massachusetts residents cast in the film is Mickey O’Keefe, who plays himself. A police sergeant by day, O’Keefe was Ward’s real-life trainer. O’Keefe, who had never acted, was hesitant at first, but Wahlberg convinced him to do it, and O’Keefe brings absolute authenticity to his part.
Swedish cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s documentary background serves him well here, intermixing the look of an HBO-style cable TV boxing program with a behind-the-scenes handheld style that isn’t overbearing, but puts you right in either the ring or the living room as if you were part of Micky’s entourage. Authenticity was a big part of telling the story. According to Russell, the boxing-match footage was created “in big, choreographed sections that were taken directly from Micky’s actual fights.” And the production licensed the original color commentary from HBO boxing hosts Larry Merchant, Roy Jones Jr. and Jim Lampley.
Hoytema also shot some of the film on actual Betacam [video-format] cameras that add to the period look, and Russell went so far as to hire the HBO director and his crew who had shot the actual Ward fights to replicate them, almost shot for shot in some cases. In the ring, the perfectly recreated boxing action scores points for a unique style that’s as original as Micky’s fighting.
And the movie doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to family drama, illustrating why reality TV is so much part of our modern culture. Micky’s relationship with Dicky — think an episode of “Intervention.” His relationship with his mother, sisters and Charlene — think “The Real Housewives of Lowell.”
Don’t worry if you think the film starts off a bit slow. I did as well, but as the saying goes, “A fight is rounds.” And like any good boxing match, this one is well worth staying to see how it ends. Whether it can be called a “knockout” is up to you, the judges, but from my corner, “The Fighter” delivers a solid body blow of a movie that goes the distance.
William Wiggins is a freelance entertainment writer from Los Angeles, who can’t see “Raging Bull” enough times. “The Fighter” is now playing at the Minaret Cinemas. Check www.mammothlakesmovies.com or call 760.934.3131 for show times and other information.