David O. Russell's THE FIGHTER covers the turbulent career of "Irish" Micky Ward and the tribulations of his half-brother and trainer, Dick Ecklund. Boxing, as a sport, is ripe for dramatic adaptations. It's bloody, brutal and most who make it to the professional level have dedicated their whole lives to it. Glory in the ring can be the highest of highs, but the lows can be a deep, depressing valley due to the pressure on the individual. The end result often enough has a lot more to do with realized potential and opportunities than it does a win-loss record. This film does a good job of displaying this inherent drama with the highs more prominently featured in Wahlberg's Ward and the lows in Bale's Ecklund.
As far as tone, THE FIGHTER falls somewhere between ROCKY and RAGING BULL, but manages to stake out some territory of its own and stake claim to a spot amongst the better sports dramas of our time. The film is as dramatic as you'd expect a boxing film to be, but it isn't the solitary journey either of those films present. We have the realization of potential against the odds rising from rock-bottom like the original ROCKY. There's also the fall from grace/squandering talent angle that you see in RAGING BULL. The former is the story of Micky and the latter is Dickie, but their tales are less epic, less fabled approaches. What O. Russell is able to infuse into these stories is a bit of the strangeness and comedy you're likely to find in daily life.
The supporting characters, including Ward's management and family (which is often one in the same), have big accents, big hair and big attitudes that may very well be an accurate depiction of the people of Lowell, Mass. One of his sisters, Beaver Ward, is even played by Conan O'Brien's sister, Kate. It's sort of a fun game trying to peg which one she is immediately, but you'll know her when you see her. Dickie's story of drug abuse and criminal activity often interchanges comedy with drama because he's just so squirrely and pathetic. On more than one occasion, Bale is shown jumping from the window of a crackhouse and into a pile of trash to elude his Mother, which is done in a light-hearted fashion. When she does catch him, however, there follows one of the most disturbing and well-done scenes of the year in which Bale breaks into the BeeGees' "I Started a Joke" (which might just be one of the saddest songs ever).
Wahlberg's ward is atypical as well. His scenes in the film often enough fall under the category of boxing-movie cliches. There are training and fight montages and scenes the fighter being down on his luck, but it's never terribly stilted. His attitude and scenes are more rock and roll than inspirational. In place of Rocky's "Gonna Fly Now" is Whitesnake and Aerosmith. This makes the film more fun and prevents it from becoming dull when the action treads the line of hackneyed.
The fight scenes themselves are, as I alluded to above, adrenaline-fueled. In their presentation and execution, they are very much like real boxing exhibitions. The technique appears sound and the blows look hard. The true accounts don't require a lot of embellishment because Micky's actual fights are pretty spectacular. In the end, the championship fight is where Micky and Dickie's paths to redemption come to a head. Ecklund, no longer living in the past, is in his brother's corner and using his voice inserts himself into the fight. With Ward's victory comes absolution for both.
The performances in the film were all pretty solid. Melissa Leo gives a hell of a turn as Ward's delusional mother and manager while Wahlberg and Amy Adams (playing Micky's girlfriend) efforts are commendable. However, the entire cast is blown away by Christian Bale's performance (for which he just won a Golden Globe). A few years ago, Bale was on his way to cementing himself as, perhaps, the greatest actor of his generation. But a nasty viral audio file and a couple critical flops lowered his stock a little. With THE FIGHTER, he again makes a case for the above title. Everything about his performance comes across as method. If you told me that he never broke character during production, I'd have to believe you. He doesn't appear to be acting; all traces of Christian Bale the performer are gone. He transformed himself for this performance and his presence in this film alone ensures it a spot amongst the year's best.