Hollywood's school Christmas pageant has arrived, and it's called "The Fighter." Everyone knows that show you attend a little out of obligation and a little out of a genuine desire to support the performers. It's not so much about art as about showing off, and you might as well roll with it, or it's going to be a long night.
Though no one plays a Christmas tree in David O. Russell's fact-based Oscar contender, Christian Bale would no doubt welcome the Method-acting challenge. Rather, Bale plays a crackhead (Merry Christmas!) in mid-'90s Lowell, Mass. Ex-boxer Dicky Eklund milks his status as "The Pride of Lowell" as he struts the streets, crowing, "Making my comeback!" Walking a half-step behind Dicky, younger half-brother Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) wears a weary smile. There's love in it, but also hard-earned resignation.
Co-dependency zig-zags through Micky's extended family as he pursues his own light welterweight boxing career. Viewed as a "stepping stone" for other boxers who fight him for an easy win, Micky hasn't been able to make his move to the big time, for reasons that are glaringly obvious to outsiders: Dicky's emotional chaos and unreliability as a trainer make him the albatross around Micky's neck, and Alice Eklund (Melissa Leo of "Frozen River") has proven herself to be the stage mom from hell, eager to exploit Micky and excuse Dicky, mostly keeping his Mr. Hyde in her blind spot. (One of the film's high points is a witty mother-son sing-along to the Bee Gees' "I Started a Joke.")
Micky trusts Dicky's boxing instincts, but Micky's no fool. When a promoter dangles a deal with the condition of "no crazy-time nonsense" (meaning no Dicky and no Alice), Micky recognizes the opportunity, though it takes the moral support of new girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) to take a leap.
"The Fighter" prizes these chewy family dynamics: the sibling rivalry, the tested loyalties and the steady corrosiveness of a family that's just a little too scrappy for its own good. (Director David O. Russell indulges comic caricature by treating the seven Eklund sisters as one foul-mouthed mass of big hair.) And certainly "The Fighter" is nothing if not a traditionally crowd-pleasing boxing movie, with its sights set on come-from-behind victory and fight sequences that eschew visual flash in favor of impressive realism. No notions challenged here: just doggedly obvious melodrama.
But what makes the cliches palatable is a communal commitment to getting the story right: Bale thinned his hair and body and studied recordings of the real Eklund, Wahlberg trained heavily and kept Ward by his side every day, and Russell shot on location in Lowell.
Screenwriters Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson thread in a documentary crew shadowing Dicky (as one did in real life), an effective device that also serves as prelude to the de rigueur tactic of placing footage of the real-life characters in the credits.
Bale swings for the rafters with his bundle-of-nerves extremity, and it's certainly impressive work, but pity Wahlberg who risks disappearing next to Bale by so quietly giving the picture everything he's got. His technical skill goes into the ring, while his emotional subtlety rings true.