The Fighter is based on the true story of Lowell, Massachusetts, light welterweight champ "Irish" Micky Ward, but, starring Boston working-class hero Mark Wahlberg, it plays as a Rocky-fied fairy tale for our time: Consigned to Palookaville, a sweet, unassuming boxer with more heart than brains steps up — all the way to the top of the world.
David O. Russell's first movie in the six years since his star-studded New Age screwball comedy I (Heart) Huckabees crashed and burned at the box office, The Fighter is a project that, although always attached to Wahlberg, passed through several hands, including now–executive producer Darren Aronofsky's, before landing with Russell (who directed the actor in both Huckabees and Three Kings). Wahlberg trained for years to play Ward, and his investment is evident, but The Fighter doesn't seem an especially personal film for Russell: By the time Micky faces off against an opponent so arrogant that he won't even shake hands, the bouts have taken on the overdetermined, rabble-rousing feel of professional wrestling.
A fight film set to a tribal drum, The Fighter plays out on the mean streets and in the dope dens of Clinton-era Lowell, birthplace of America's industrial revolution as well as Jack Kerouac. The first 30 minutes are rich in moxie, thanks to Christian Bale's wired, wild-eyed performance as the former "Pride of Lowell," Ward's older half-brother, Dicky Eklund, a noisy ghost living on crack fumes and memories of his fight with Sugar Ray Leonard. Micky, like Dicky before him, is (mis)-managed by his high-powered harridan mother (Melissa Leo) and supported by a scarifying seven-sister fan club. The movie's first fight has the entire clan descending on Atlantic City where Irish Micky's original opponent (a black Jew) calls in sick, enabling a last-minute substitute to batter Micky senseless in the first round. He subsequently breaks with his bloodsucking family when he takes up with the tough, carnal barmaid (Amy Adams, no Disney princess here) that his floozy sibs call the "MTV girl." Bales's antics aside, there's no hokum more entertaining in The Fighter than Adams's expression of total incredulity when she first meets Micky's maenads en masse — each of their faces frozen in a Medusa mask.
Dicky may have been the subject of an HBO America Undercover doc (High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell), but, as presented by Russell, the whole family is living a reality show — their domestic drama played out in full view of friends and neighbors. Indeed, Micky's essential struggle is not in the ring or even against his big brother so much as it is with his mother who dotes on her fuck-up first-born boy (and enables his blatant scene-stealing). In the most show-stopping instance, Bale successfully woos his angry mother, not to mention the audience, by breaking into an a cappella rendition of the Bee Gees' lament "I Started a Joke." It's thanks to Bale's Dicky (and Russell's knack for choreographing mass confusion) that The Fighter has a measure of what Kerouac recalled in his boyhood-evoking Dr. Sax as "the Lowell of mad midnights under gaunt pines by the lickety ticky moon."
Once upon a time, Dicky might have been The Fighter's fallen hero. Presaged by the Group Theater's 1939 production of Golden Boy, post–World War II boxing films like Body and Soul, Champion and The Set-Up were all about class struggle, specifically the brutality of the capitalist system and the pathos of the proletariat; with few exceptions, Hollywood boxers were tragic figures until Sylvester Stallone changed the game, upping the genre's ethnic ante and opting for a Cinderella structure, to create one of the greatest success sagas in American movies. (The anti-Rocky, Raging Bull garnered precious few kudos back in 1980; great filmmaking aside, there's nothing feel-good about Martin Scorcese's portrait of Jake LaMotta.) And so, after a volatile first half, Micky eclipses Dicky, and The Fighter settles into a predictably rutted narrative arc. Although the movie ends before Micky's epic HBO-televised battles with Arturo Gatti, The Fighter shares Rocky's optimistic trajectory and then some.
Even more than Rocky, The Fighter gives boxing a social use-value. Just like a skillful politician, Micky brings together everyone, no matter how assholic, to share in his success. "A boxer, like a writer, must stand alone," A.J. Liebling famously wrote. But The Fighter is less about individual struggle than group validation. I (Heart) Lowell: To make Micky Ward, it apparently took a village.