Monday, January 17, 2011

THE FIGHTER (2010): Story of Micky Ward and Dicky Ecklund

The Fighter is part Rocky and part Raging Bull with the same attributes and flaws of these two earlier fight movies.  Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) comes from an extremely dysfunctional family whose influence he cannot seem to escape.  His mother Alice (Melissa Leo) is a controlling woman, completely blind to the behavior of her children, and who insists on taking an active role in managing the fight career of Micky.  Micky’s sisters abide by whatever asinine directions their mother gives.  Micky’s father George (Jack McGee) tries to be a decent husband and father but has no control over limiting his family’s insanity.  Most significantly, Dicky Ecklund (Christian Bale), Micky’s half brother, is a crack smoking ex-fighter who wants to train Micky while at the same time engaging in all sorts of felonious behavior.  (Dicky’s claim to fame is that he once unofficially knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard in a professional bout while many people at ringside called the knockdown a push.)  Micky does find a girlfriend, Charlene (Amy Adams), a mini-skirted and tough talking waitress and bartender, who has the courage to stand up to Micky’s family.  Through Charlene’s influence and through Dicky’s conveniently getting himself jailed for assaulting several policemen Micky is able to keep his act together well enough to put together a few impressive wins, and this enables him to get a shot at the World Boxing Union Light Welterweight championship of the world.  (The World Boxing Union is only one of about a dozen sanctioning committees that hands out boxing titles - so the viewer should be only marginally impressed that Micky has been granted this title bout.)  By this time, Dicky is released from jail, gets himself off of crack, and is able to make a positive contribution to Micky’s training for the championship bout.  Micky’s mother also apologizes for being so controlling and promises to stay out of the way.  Micky manages to hang on during the early rounds of this bout and wins the title by technical knockout in the eighth round.  We are told at the end of the movie that Micky eventually marries Charlene. 

How much one enjoys The Fighter is largely dependent upon one’s ability to suspend their disbelief.  The ending of the movie resolves itself too neatly and happily to hold up under any strict scrutiny.  Micky won his title bout during the year of 2000 and, unfortunately, his brother Dicky has been in quite a bit of trouble since that time.  He was busted for possession of crack in 2006 and may soon be charged with attempted murder.  I’m also doubtful that the Alice, as portrayed in the movie, could have so completely removed herself from interfering with Micky’s life. 

Like in almost every boxing movie made (including Rocky and Raging Bull), the fight scenes and training sequences are completely staged and unconvincing.  Movie directors cannot resist the urge to brutalize the fight sequences and turn the whole encounter into a David versus Goliath scenario.  Ringside accounts of the Micky Ward and Shea Neary title bout had Ward winning almost every round.  Probably, we did not have the dramatics of Charlene begging everyone that the fight be stopped to save Micky from a savage beating.  I suppose having Mark Wahlberg look somewhat like a conditioned fighter should be enough when taken in context to other fight films.  To be fair, it is almost impossible to film fictionalized fight scenes that contain the nuances of the real thing.  The Joe Louis Story, an extremely low budget movie filmed in 1953, may be the only film that ever got it right because it used actual footage from fights involving the heavyweight champion.

It is almost as difficult to write about boxing as even some accomplished literary figures could not resist over dramatization.  Norman Mailer and Joyce Carol Oates mythologized fighters by making the fight game appear like a religious quest.  Jack London created fantastic characterizations of fighters, but he could not resist politicizing the actual fight sequences by making it sound like a battle of the oppressor versus the oppressed.  Ring Lardner could not put away his cynical disdain whenever a fighter accomplished something significant.  And even Hemingway, who wrote as eloquently about physical action as any American writer and who composed probably the greatest boxing story ever written (“Fifty Grand”), could not help but cast moral aspersions at fighters he did not like such as Jack Dempsey or Max Baer.  The best descriptions of fight sequences continue to be written up in Ring Magazine and other sports’ journals because these reporters cover far too many fights to romanticize each bout and are aware of the behavior of too many fighters to ever be impressed or misty eyed about a fight such as a WBU Championship bout.

Nevertheless, The Fighter contains probably the best acting of any boxing movie since Raging Bull was released back in 1980.  Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale and Melissa Leo played their roles almost perfectly in their struggles with their own personality flaws.  I’m not as convinced concerning the acting of Amy Adams.  The tough talking but attractive leading lady characterization goes all the way back to Mae West and by now has become a Hollywood type.  Yet even Adams plays her typecast role adeptly.

This movie can also be gut wrenchingly intense – especially in almost every sequence that Christian Bale appears.  Whether his sudden conversion seems forced, Dicky still comes across as disturbingly real.  The character of Dicky knows that he just missed his chance for greatness when fighting Sugar Ray Leonard.  Though it is difficult to tell if he actually did knock down Leonard or if this was the result of a push, Dicky did manage to hurt Leonard in their fight and would have made boxing history had Dicky gone on to beat the great fighter.  Dicky’s skills as a fighter were undone by his own character flaws.

By no means do I consider The Fighter to be a great movie because so much of it doesn’t seem believable.  Yet in today’s Hollywood setting such a criticism could apply to almost every film.  At least we had three characters that seemed flawed and real in this movie.

January 16, 2011
© Robert S. Miller 2011

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