Over the past decade, sports movies have, for better or worse, become virtually monopolized by Disney. Some, like Remember the Titans, Miracle and Cinderella Man (which is actually Universal/Miramax but follows in the same tradition as its Disney counterparts), are genuinely inspiring, but most feel like little more than rote exercises; you can sense the boxes being marked off: underdog protagonist, check; stern but motivating, has-been mentor, check; training montage, rising-toward-success montage, rousing speech or crowd cheering sequence during climax, check, check, check; throw in some sociopolitical issue to raise the stakes, just for good measure. It's as if they think audiences will forgive the clichéd mediocrity of the whole affair just because the words "based on a true story" are written on the poster.
The Fighter is not one of those movies. That isn't to say it doesn't follow the generic sports movie storyline, because for the most part, it does. There's the underdog protagonist, "Irish" Micky Ward who starts the film off by telling everyone he's going to win a fight he ultimately loses so badly he's afraid to show his face for weeks; the mentor, his half-brother Dicky Eklund who coulda been a contendah before succumbing to crack cocaine addiction; the usual string of montages, though the everyone-rallies-around-the-hero scene is thankfully absent.
And yet, something about David O. Russell's latest project feels fresh, very un-sports movie-ish. Maybe it's the way he ignores the clichés, rather than attempting to avoid them, acknowledging that they're inevitable because this is, after all, based on a true story, but never embracing them. There's no swelling music during the boxing scenes (in fact, aside from some choice rock/pop ditties scattered here and there, there isn't much of a score at all), and the grainy, documentary-like cinematography gives the proceedings a refreshingly authentic feel. Maybe it's the austere yet intimate script, which revels in the grit and grime of both Lowell, Massachusetts and the world of boxing without glorifying either, unflinching in its portrayal of the story's main players.
According to most, it's the cast, which is, if not the outright best part, then certainly the most celebrated aspect of The Fighter. While promoting the movie, Mark Wahlberg made his love for the subject clear, describing the work he put into getting it made and why he stuck with it even as directors and prospective costars came and went. His passion and dedication comes through in his portrayal of Micky Ward, whom he turns into less of the earnest Everyman he played in 2006's Invincible, one of the aforementioned unremarkable entries in Disney's sports movie catalog, and more into someone who boxes as much for pure survival as for enjoyment of the sport. His central conflict is not whether or not he can win the next bout, though that is also important, but whether he can find personal success without abandoning his dysfunctional but ardently loyal family; we relate to and care about his struggle, and root for him because of that.
Oddly enough, of the ensemble, Wahlberg is most likely to be overlooked by viewers. Melissa Leo and Amy Adams both take radically different turns from their most well-known roles, and to great effect. Melissa Leo's Alice, Micky's mother and manager, is bossy and domineering, the sort of woman who can turn men into whimpering puppies with one glance, but taking advantage of her few emotional moments, such as one where she and Dicky sing the Bee Gees's "I Started a Joke", Leo humanizes her enough to prevent the Ward/Eklund matriarch from becoming a complete shrew. In comparison, Charlene initially seems demure, though we later learn she's not afraid of a fight (or a little booze). She holds her head up high because she went to college, but in truth, she's as much of a failure as any of the boorish patrons at the bar where she works. Amy Adams eschews stereotype for realism, glamour for raw honesty, and we believe her a hundred percent.
The majority of attention will, no doubt, go to Christian Bale, who is guaranteed to pick up a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, if not the win, for his work here. As Dicky Eklund, Bale delivers a performance that, while certainly demanding, seems light-hearted, almost comedic at times compared to what one might expect given the actor's propensity for intense, brooding roles. Though he physically transformed himself for the part, he wows us not by focusing on theatrical mannerisms or wallowing in melodrama the way most actors would have, but by revealing the person behind the addiction; he plays Dicky Eklund, not a drug addict. Because, in spite of everything, Eklund is one charismatic and goofy guy, and it's not hard to understand why he is still considered a local hero for beating - or "beating", depending on who you ask - Sugar Ray Leonard in the late '70s, rather than a local disappointment for subsequently squandering his potential. When Dicky watches a documentary he claimed was about his "comeback" but is instead about crack addiction with him as the main subject, honest-to-God tears sprang to my eyes; his moment of realization is almost painful to watch. What makes Christian Bale so great can be extended to the rest of the cast as well: they don't portray roles, they portray characters, people.
In the end, it's a combination of all the above points that makes The Fighter work. More than anything else, it's a character-study of Micky and those involved in his search for a better life, even if that life lasts only a moment. In fact, the no-frills, relationship-centric approach arguably robs the climactic fight of a bit of its power considering that, by then, the dramatic conflicts have largely been resolved. Nonetheless, this is a great movie with strong performances, writing and direction that manages to breathe new life into a tired and trite genre. What were the odds?