The biggest problem with David O. Russell’s The Fighter is that it has no idea what goal it wants to accomplish. Is it an underdog story? Is it a story about the tragedy of drug addiction? Is it a story about love and family? The Fighter tries to address all of these themes but finds itself unable to discuss any of them at length.
Based on a true story, The Fighter is about two brothers, Dicky (played by Christian Bale) and Micky (Mark Walhberg) They live in Lowell, Massachusetts, where Dicky is a local legend whose claim to fame was knocking out Sugar Ray Leonard in a boxing match in 1978. Now, in 1993, Dicky is a crack addict trying his best to train Micky to take his place. However, Micky dislikes the pressure that Dicky and their mother Alice (Melissa Leo) place on him and seeks to break away from his family by forming a relationship with local barmaid Charlene (Amy Adams) and winning the affection of his daughter from his estranged ex-girlfriend.
Now, there is much to praise about the film. It features great performances and some excellent production values. The boxing matches look like they were filmed for broadcast on HBO. Like Martin Scorsese’s boxing masterpiece Raging Bull, these realistic-looking scenes help give the material a touch of authenticity. I was surprised that no one walked down the aisles to start taking bets.
Yet the best aspect of the film is in the performances. Amy Adams and Christian Bale demonstrate why there are among the best actors of their generation. They are able to mimic the Boston accent and tough attitude, but they go beyond mere aesthetics and show how important their characters are to the story. Bale uses his character to become a foil for Micky. Micky is cloistered and barely talks – Dicky is outgoing and barely stops. Micky’s interactions with his brother are marked with fear – Micky looks at Dicky and sees a possible future for himself. Yet if Dicky is what Micky could be, than Charlene is what he truly wants to be. She is loud, assertive, and able to stand up to his family. The performances Bale and Adams give help the film’s themes immensely.
But neither of these benefits outweighs the film’s hindrances. David O. Russell’s films have always been divisive. It is said that a previous effort, I Heart Huckabees, is a film that made Netflix change the way it calculates its recommendations, as audiences either love it or hate it. I have a feeling that The Fighter may do something similar. The film never becomes a real gripping drama or a character study of Micky. Dicky takes up a lot of screen time, even when it does not help tell the story of Micky. I know it will be a point of debate amongst viewers as to who the story is about, but the film is called The Fighter. Notice how the title is singular. In addition, Micky’s numerous sisters never seem to do anything except provide simple comic relief, and the scenes with Micky’s ex-girlfriend are among the most clichéd I have seen all year – the entire subplot could have been copy-pasted from a Syd Field book. There is a masterpiece in the material but it is too unfocused to be considered as such.
I want to make it clear – The Fighter is not a bad film. The performances are very good and rank among the best of 2010. Yet for all of the accolades it is receiving (including an Oscar nomination for best picture), the film just feels far too shallow and unfocused. I guess every year needs an overrated film, and 2010 was the year of The Fighter.