“Irish” Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg, The Happening) is a down on his luck fighter managed by his overbearing mother Alice (Melissa Leo, 21 Grams) and trained by his crack addled, unreliable, ex-prize fighter older half-brother Dickie Eklund (Christian Bale, Terminator Salvation), whose claim to fame was knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard, earning him the nickname “the pride of Lowell”. After Alice and Dickie allow Mickey to fight an opponent twenty pounds heavier than he is, resulting in a humiliating loss, Mickey gives up fighting, while Dickie slides further into trouble, running scams and getting thrown into jail. Mickey returns to the sport and breaks with Dickie and Alice with help from his new girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams, Julie and Julia), his father George (Jack McGee, Crash), trainer Mickey O’Keefe (playing himself), and a new manager, Sal Lanao (TV producer and writer Frank Renzulli), -but can he manage his difficult family relationships while getting back on track as a prize-fighter?
While The Fighter is a boxing film, based on the real life career of Mickey Ward, the film’s heart is in the struggle of Alice and Dickie to let go of Dickie’s past and failed promise long enough to embrace brother Mickey’s promising future. The casting is perfect, with the often miscast Wahlberg perfect in a role that requires him to do what he does best: look tough and play a likable, soft-spoken guy who lets others push him around. The real performances come from Christian Bale as the manic Dickie, Leo as the controlling Alice, who uses her brood of daughters to manage any trouble she runs into and Adams as the woman who finally stands up to Alice. The fights themselves are credible, if Hollywood, and Ward’s career is simplified and dramatized somewhat to provide a good “lost fight-comeback fight-win no one expects” arc to his career.
Director David O. Russell (Flirting with Disaster) kept the accents reasonable by instructing his actors to do no more than Mark Wahlberg did, and it really shows, avoiding some of the pitfalls that Massachusetts-based films like The Departed ran into. The locations in Lowell are as authentic run down Massachusetts looking as they come, and the film has a wonderful sense of place, very important for a story based on the life of a local hero. If the script by Scott Silver of 8 Mile and Paul Tamasy of Air Bud fame isn’t particularly innovative in its sports story, the personal relationships of the characters are managed brilliantly, making for gripping viewing.