Let’s get real here, just for a few minutes. I don’t like watching movies about straight white male athletes. I’m going to say, right out and right now, that being a Canadian male who is no stranger to a book or Wii makes me very far from the target audience for a movie like The Fighter. My top three sports movies of all time are Rocky, The Wrestler and tied with The Wrestler is Black Swan, for being the same movie. And you know why I like those movies? Because: spoiler alert, they don’t have the typical happy ending. If there’s anything I am uninterested in, it’s straight white male athletes conquering other straight white male athletes in competitions almost exclusively built for straight white male athletes. Maybe I was bullied as a child.
So if I’m so very far from the target audience for this feature, being myself, why did I go see it? Partly because it’s nominated for Best Picture. I’ll be frank: the only three reasons I can think of to nominate this for any award are named Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo. It’s not offensively awful–I can certainly see that it means well. It takes the realist route of the biographical picture, showing Micky Ward’s life as it was back in those days. It’s not happy, it’s not fake. But it also isn’t very much of anything else, either. It’s there and it’s likely true, and it’s true to life, but it doesn’t tell me why I should care about Micky Ward any more than it tells me why I should care about Mickey O’Keefe. That guy’s great.
The movie is the story of “Irish Micky” Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a man whose associates never knew how to punctuate a nickname. When the movie starts, he’s on the outs in the professional circles. Even the barmaiden knows that he’s a “stepping stone”–the fighter other fighters fight to move up beyond his status. He’s being managed by his mom (Melissa Leo) and trained by his crackhead brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) when crackhead Dicky isn’t strung out on crack and Mickey O’Keefe (AS HIMSELF) steps in. He is a stepping stone, which makes the scene where a girl he has his eye on, Charlene (Amy Adams) tells him so all the more painful. He knows he isn’t everything he could be, she knows he isn’t everything he could be. But after some punk insults her and he slams said punk’s head into the bar, she’s impressed.
The movie idles about a few everything, doing a lot of things that it only needs to do once at least three times. O’Keefe walks into the gym to start training with Micky cos Dicky’s at a crackhouse (he does crack, btw). Micky asks O’Keefe where Dicky is. “You know where he is.” That’s really all the information we needed in a concrete way. The cut across town to show Dicky at the crackhouse, sparring jokingly with another addict is a nice touch, but isn’t necessary. We know he’s addicted to crack and we know that everyone else knows but no one talks about it. And in that small way, The Fighter shows exactly what it does wrong. It gives us four or five opportunities to learn something once.
We’re shown quite a few fights in The Fighter. So many that sitting through the second last one, I wondered why the movie was climaxing on a regular, plain jane fight where Micky follows his brother’s advice at the last minute for a knock-out victory. His brother, by that point, is in prison for all that crack. How many times can I say that? And how many times will get across the point that no matter how frequently I say that Dicky is addicted to crack, the movie says it far more often? Especially more than necessary. That second last fight gets Micky a shot at the light welterweight title, where he might have the chance to take it all for himself. See, Micky’s family is populated by people who think of themselves as the stars in their own little movies. There’s a movie being made about Dicky–he thinks it’s about his comeback. It’s about cra–I’m not even gonna say it.
I’ve underestimated Christian Bale in the years between The Machinist and now. He’s most famous for playing Batman in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, a role he plays well. Meaning no disrespect to anyone involved in those productions or the production of The Prestige, Bale hasn’t really had a chance to stretch his legs between then and now. He’s here as a lean, terrifying transformation–an ex-boxer pining for the glory days, but maintaining a clown-like disposition that makes him oddly charming. I forget that Christian Bale is a truly gifted actor and that’s my fault.
Amy Adams and Melissa Leo also spend the feature pulling the spotlight from Mark Wahlberg. Amy Adams is a no-nonsense determined barmaiden, who sees what could be greatness in Micky and is determined to keep him from drowning under the weight of his self-serving family. Melissa Leo is so pitch-perfect as the mother unintentionally sabotaging her son’s career with her overbearing overconfidence in her abilities, she enraged me. A great demonstration of the effects a gifted portrayal of that character can have.
However, there’s a reason those three are nominated for Oscars but Mark Wahlberg isn’t. I wish I hadn’t read Roger Ebert’s review before I saw this film–not for colouring my interpretation, but for the fact that his is the only turn of phrase that comes to mind trying to write about Micky. He’s bland. There’s nothing there. Mark Wahlberg portrays him as a good man, quiet, with no real desires to speak of. Sure, he wants to be champion and he wants to take it for himself, but he’s too polite to ditch his family to do so. He really should–he has no reason aside from down-home goodness to stay with them, and getting paid to train sounds like heaven from my end. To Mark Wahlberg’s Micky, it looks like a vague aspiration. Much like this movie has vague aspirations to being Rocky, but forgets that Balboa only needed to go the distance. TWO STARS