I once referred to Christian Bale as The Actor Most Likely To Tick Off His Wife By Staying In Character Over Dinner.
Shortly thereafter, to my amusement, I read an article in which Bale admitted this was true, that his method actor’s commitment sometimes got on his wife’s nerves. With that in mind, Bale’s role as a crack-addicted ex-boxer in “The Fighter” must have been a rough few months for Mrs. Bale.
For the mainstream audiences that equate Bale with the stoic anti-hero of Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” movies, Bale’s smoking-fuse performance in “The Fighter” could open eyes. This is the first film with popular aspirations in which Bale completely submerges into an edgy character. He lost weight to create a gaunt and wasting appearance, and I’m not sure how any normal human being could voluntarily make his eyes bulge like that. One wonders if he took a pair of pliers and plucked out his own real teeth just to heighten the authenticity.
While “The Fighter” centers on the struggles of boxer Mickey Ward, played with an odd mix of masculinity and sensitivity by Mark Wahlberg, it’s dominated by the method performances of Bale and Melissa Leo. A local legend in Lowell, Massachusetts, Bale’s Dickey Eklund once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard. He has since been knocked out by crack addiction. He trains his brother on the rare passing occasions of his sobriety. Leo is a piece of work, a drunk but dominating mother mismanaging her son’s boxing career.
While his parents and siblings (nine brother and sisters) drink themselves numb on his earnings, it’s Wahlberg’s Ward who must drink the family acid. He tries to stay loyal to family as family loyalty ruins his personal dreams. What better way to redeem yourself than to fall in love with Amy Adams? She plays wisely to her redeemer role, albeit a redeemer with a right cross, a foul mouth, and a chowder accent.
What is it about blue-collar Boston that inspires this rash of similar films – “The Fighter,” “Conviction,” and “The Town”? Are there any males in Boston who don’t go to jail? Do all the women have damaged hair and dress themselves in the clothes that the Salvation Army left in the dumpster? For whatever reason, Boston lends itself to themes of loyalty, of the tribal instincts versus modern reality. A veteran of dysfunctional family comedy (see “Flirting with Disaster”), director David O. Russell captures it with sad intensity and humor, even if the film’s multiple screenwriters wrap up the story a little too neatly.
A boxing movie always builds up to one big fight. A good one needs a knockout final round. This is one weakness of “The Fighter”– its culminating fight is rather lightweight, compared to the great fights of film history. It lacks the palpable blood, sweat, and exhaustion of the original “Rocky.” Nor does it have the cinematic vision of Scorsese’s “Raging Bull.” Frankly, at some point some enterprising director needs to re-examine how to make a boxing movie in order to break the structural dead end.
Until then, “The Fighter” is the well-acted crowd-pleaser that ably treads familiar family territory. Just be sure to remember the BoSox cap and the Whitesnake.