Acting for the silver screen doesn't get more raw, moving or accomplished than what you see in The Fighter, that rare film in which every performer in it leaves the viewer in awe.
The quartet at its heart — Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo and Mark Wahlberg — wholly inhabit their characters and wash away most everything they've done before. And what's even better is how perfectly they complement one another in this down-and-dirty "true story" boxing drama.
"Irish" Mickey Ward, as the On the Waterfront line goes, "coulda been a contender." But if this asphalt worker in Lowell, Mass., isn't a contender, he doesn't have to look far for reasons. There's his low-life manager mom (Melissa Leo at her very trashiest). She books him into fights he has no chance in just to get the payday. Mickey is the one who has to deal with the bloody bludgeonings that are a consequence of her naïveté (promoters take advantage of her) and selfishness.
And then there's his older brother, Dickie Eklund. He was the first boxer in the family, a mug whose claim to fame was going the distance against Sugar Ray Leonard, even knocking the guy down.
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"I heard he slipped," everybody jokes to Dickie. But it's no laughing matter to the former "Pride of Lowell." Dickie's fallen on hard times. He's an irredeemable junkie who makes a show of hiding his addiction from his mother, who makes a show of not seeing it. And he's played with all the crazy-eyed fury and desperation Christian Bale can muster, a lovable, happy-go-lucky train wreck who can't stay sober, can't stay out of trouble and insists on training his brother, the younger guy who still has a shot. Dicky is a constant letdown, but try as he might, Mickey can't break free from Dickie, his mother or his family. He's the glue that holds them all together.
Then comes the sassy barmaid who blows it all up. Amy Adams (Enchanted) is a revelation as Charlene, a foul-mouthed, gum-snapping wisegal who doesn't take any guff, especially from some boxing street paver.
"I heard you're a stepping stone," she says. Yeah, she's heard of "Irish" Mickey. But she's the kind of girl who is impressed when a guy slaps around a customer who gets fresh with her, so it's on. Charlene can hold her own, even with Mickey's gaggle of tough-broad sisters, who have names like Red Dog and Pork. They hate her college-girl pedigree and deride her as "this MTV girl" who's coming between Mickey and his family. But with Charlene providing the spine, Mickey sets the table to finally get his shot, at 31.
David O' Russell's film immerses us in this milieu and in this noisy, quarrelsome clan and its hold on Mickey. The level of realism (with non-actors in some roles) helps us invest in the story, and with the great villains of the piece being relatives, we can no more write them off than Mickey can.
The Fighter is a conventional boxing picture, with its plucky underdog, its hatefully hilarious and trashy family holding him back and "that one last shot" we all hope we get. Wahlberg has convincingly played sports figures before (Invincible), but his Mickey feels so lived-in that this performance transcends anything he's ever done.
Bale's maniacal commitment to Dickie's every tick and foible, Leo's sexually charged monster mom and Adams' almost feral transformation from Disney princess make this an acting showcase that's sure to be remembered at Oscar time.