There’s really nothing wrong with The Fighter. It has a lot of great performances, a fairly compelling story and it looks great. But there is just something missing, some indefinable quality that keeps it from earning the plaudits that it has.
Mark Wahlberg stars as boxer Micky Ward, theoretically the titular character but perhaps the light combative person in the whole movie. Ward’s career is floundering, but he’s reluctant to offend his manager-mother Alice (played by Melissa Leo) and his half-brother trainer Dicky (played by Christian Bale). Wahlberg’s characterizations may be appropriate, but they make the character kind of flat. He’s dominated by all these outsized personalities in his own family (and to a similar extent by his girlfriend Charlene, played by Amy Adams) to the extent that time spent focused on him feels squandered.
The performances by Bale and Leo are both intense and captivating, but occasionally threaten to drag the film into a cartoonish arena. The Fighter is set amid the so-called “working-class” of Lowell, Massachusetts, which means you get a lot of low-educated Irish racists mouthing off. This kind of thing can start to feel exploitative, especially as you recall that for the most part these are pampered Hollywood millionaires playing dress-up. Both Bale and Leo should get credit for inhabiting their characters, however outsized, with aplomb and gusto. Bale has the extra challenge of playing a crack-addict and maintaining a sense of charm, which he proves himself equal to.
Amy Adams also handles her character quite well. It’s a marked departure from her innocent-girl roles in Enchanted and Doubt, but she makes her bartender’s foul-mouth all her own.
The boxing plot isn’t much to write home about. If you’ve seen any boxing movie, you’ve seen it before. Guy gets beaten up, deals with his problems, gets beaten up some more, channels his frustrations into the ring, and has greater success. There is much more of interest in Bale’s character, who beats crack-addiction in prison and must deal with having disappointed his brother.
It took Wahlberg years to get this film made, and though again, it’s a fine film, you have to wonder what in particular struck him so deeply that he had to get it made.