Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Pulling Punches: The Fighter

When David O. Russell directed Flirting with Disaster (1996) and Three Kings (1999), he took familiar genre material and then with flair and originality not only made it less familiar, he made it dazzling. In Flirting with Disaster, about an adopted man (Ben Stiller) who sets out to find his birth parents, Russell turned this hilarious sojourn into a whole new version of screwball heaven. (His first picture, Spanking the Monkey, a 1994 comedy about incestuous urges, served merely as a warm-up.)

Three Kings began as a satire about the 1991 Iraq War as seen through the eyes of three grunts who live average lives, but are looking for glory. When they seek to steal gold from Saddam’s bunker to enrich their own coffers, they find instead that their lives are dramatically altered when their quest becomes a rescue mission to save the lives of refugees. As a war movie, only Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970) was its equal in the undaunting way it blended tragedy and farce.

Russell faltered with the highly ambitious, but tone-deaf, 2004 comedy ♥ Huckabees which began as a fascinating existential mystery, but then got bogged down in a chaotic, shambling satire about corporatism and environmentalism. (Since the corporate heads, the environmentalists and the philosophers all end up as fools; it was tough to figure out just what Russell was lampooning here.) Even so, Russell was certainly an original who turned corners that you never saw coming. You felt like you were experiencing traditional stories opened up in radically new ways.

In The Fighter, however, David O. Russell walks a straighter line. The movie is about the rise of boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) to become Welterweight Champion. But Russell pulls no rabbits out of his hat this time; he pulls his punches instead. It begins as a riveting character study of how Ward, from the working-class neighbourhood of Lowell, Massachusetts, had to overcome a complicated family dynamic to be the boxer he was destined to be, but the picture soon retreats into traditional inspirational territory. Which is another way of saying that The Fighter is sure to be a holiday hit.

What’s maddening about the movie though is how Russell, through a botched screenplay by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson, loses touch with the dramatic essence of the material. Although Ward is being touted as Lowell’s next great welterweight, his family still can’t forget the promise of his half-brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), once the boxing pride of the borough when he went the distance with Sugar Ray Leonard. But Dicky has now become a wasted shell who's addicted to crack cocaine while training his step-sibling. Meanwhile, Alice (Melissa Leo), their coarsely aggressive mother, dotes on her damaged son in a manner that is creepily seductive. Before long, it becomes clear that Micky’s largest adversary is not the boxers in the ring, but the family that’s supposed to be backing him. The script even implies that since Dicky is the favourite son, the family continues the fantasy that, through his work with Micky, he’s going to make a comeback. (A film crew is documenting Dicky for an HBO special which he thinks is showing his return to glory when they are actually revealing his lost promise to drugs.) As the television cameras document the truth, Alice continues to support Dicky despite all evidence that he’s a lost cause.

Director David O. Russell
It would be one thing if Russell examined how Alice’s blind devotion to Dicky both cripples her oldest son and inadvertently damages Micky's career, but Russell never allows Micky to become aware of the dilemma. Instead, Micky meets Charlene (Amy Adams), a local barmaid with a heart of gold, who not only supports her man but also takes on his clan for him. Before long, in order to advance Micky’s rise to glory, the movie has to water down the familial conflict in order to get everybody in Micky’s corner cheering him on to greatness.

The Fighter does little for the actors. Mark Wahlberg, who started to really develop into a fine actor after appearing in Three Kings, provides a steady hand as Micky, but he has no role to develop. Since Micky becomes the object of everyone else making him the hero, Wahlberg is reduced to having to play a passive dramatic character. Even so, he still manages to provide authenticity. Christian Bale, on the other hand, works the room. He acts up a storm in a terribly studied performance. Bale is perhaps one of the most dedicated of the great young actors we have, but his dedication sometimes leads to him swallowing a role to the point where the actor (maybe even the human being) disappears. He stripped down his weight (as he did in The Machinist) to toothpick proportions and then developed a collection of drug-addled tics to perform. His Dicky resembles a coke-headed Sach out of The Bowery Boys. (Bale's only touching moment comes in a scene where he tries to calm Alice with a rendition of the Bee Gees' "I Started a Joke.") If Melissa Leo continues to find new ways to be unappealingly feral, Amy Adams still springs appealingly from her feet (despite the clumping lines coming from her mouth).

Mark Wahlberg and Amy Adams
It goes without saying that along with the dramatic sabotage of the story, much of the facts have been altered, too. Although Dicky Eklund trained his half-brother both before and after a stint in prison, he hardly became the reformed character the movie makes him out to be. In The Fighter, the crime he commits seems minor next to the 10-15 year sentence he actually got for breaking and entering, kidnapping and masked armed robbery. His crack cocaine addiction didn't miraculously disappear either. He continued a life of violence where he was arrested again in 2006 and 2009 for domestic assault and attempted murder. The Fighter also avoids the best part of Micky Ward's story. In 2002, he first faced Arturo Gatti, an Italian Super Lightweight boxer from Montreal, where Ward won a ninth round knockdown after a delirious fight. (Ring Magazine called it the fight of the year and both boxers needed to seek care in a trauma center after it was over.) They continued their battles over two more fights (which Gatti won) but not before both men again needed hospitalization for the pain they inflicted on each other. After the second fight, Gatti told Franz Lidz of Sports Illustrated, "I used to wonder what would happen if I fought my twin. Now I know." 

Melissa Leo and Christian Bale
Those battles could have made for a much more convincing picture than the one served up in The Fighter. But part of the problem has always been that many sports movies are rarely ever about the sport. They usually succeed most as inspirational stories about winning and transcending the odds. The Fighter may not be as baldly manipulative as the Rocky series, but those movies are at least all of a piece in ways that this movie isn't. David O. Russell may have scored a knockout with audiences and some critics, but as a drama, The Fighter never even comes close to finding its true target.

— Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Beginning in January 2011, Courrier will be presenting a lecture series on Film Noir at the Revue Cinema in Toronto (see http://revuecinema.ca/programs/film-noir).

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