(SHNS) - David O. Russell says he got hired to direct "The Fighter" after answering a question from the film's producers about what kind of movie he wanted to make. "I want to make 'Rocky,' " Russell said.
We all like a story about an underdog who triumphs over adversity, but for me, "The Fighter" is a cut above the overrated "Rocky" films. In the hands of Russell and his excellent cast and crew, "The Fighter" rises closer to the level of the champions among boxing films -- including John Huston's "Fat City," Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull" and Ron Howard's "Cinderella Man" -- in its powerful performances, realistic depiction of a particular time and place, and pugilistic veracity.
"The Fighter" is out this week in a two-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo pack that also includes a digital copy, along with a single-disc DVD version (Paramount Home Entertainment, $19.99/$29.99 combo, rated R). It was one of 2010's most honored films, receiving seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, and winning Oscars for the supporting performances of Christian Bale and Melissa Leo.
Russell's film is based on the real-life story of two boxing brothers, Dicky Ecklund (Bale) and Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), and their combative family. Dicky, who 14 years earlier had fought a close fight with the legendary Sugar Ray Leonard, is his younger brother's trainer. But he's also a crack addict whose lucid advice to his brother is often undermined by his irresponsible behavior.
Russell's brilliant pacing quickly unravels the layers of complexity in the brothers' relationship to each other and to their dominating mother Alice (Leo), who also serves as Micky's manager, as well as to their decent but weak father (Jack McGee) and their seven sisters. With a brother who cannot be depended upon and a mother willing to book him for a fight in which he is vastly outweighed by his opponent, Micky's once-promising fight career is floundering. It's only when Micky gets someone else into his life, a girlfriend, Charlene (Amy Adams), who's as tough and quick on her feet as Alice, that he takes his first tentative steps away from his family's control and toward a comeback.
The movie is set and partially shot in the tough, working-class city of Lowell, Mass., once the home of large textile mills and the site of a famous strike by women textile workers in the 19th century. "The Fighter" captures a community that, in the 1990s, had seen better days. In the DVD documentary "The Warrior's Code: Filming 'The Fighter,' " Russell credits Wahlberg's participation as both producer and actor for the film's realistic look and feel. Wahlberg, like Micky and Dicky, is also one of nine children, and he grew up in a similar Irish Catholic neighborhood (Dorchester) in nearby Boston. Wahlberg's familiarity with the milieu of Lowell, said Russell, "brought a level of intensity and respect to the set."
From the aforementioned making-of documentary and a second short documentary featuring the actual people portrayed onscreen, we can see how Bale truly embodies Dicky in his portrayal. He gives a riveting, multidimensional performance. Check out the deleted scenes to see some additional examples of Bale's talent.
Leo is exceptional playing a bad mother who clearly favors Dicky over all her other children and makes excuses for his conduct. Although Leo beat out fellow nominee Adams for the Supporting Actress Oscar, Adams' performance is also a formidable one. She's cast against type as a feisty bartender and Micky's tough-talking but loving girlfriend.
Yet as good as Bale, Leo and Adams may be, Wahlberg's quietly understated performance is the most crucial to the success of "The Fighter." Wahlberg may have been the only major cast member not to receive an Oscar nomination for acting (he did receive a nomination as one of the three producers), but without his ability to portray a shy, somewhat withdrawn member of a boisterous family and to fight like a genuine boxer, the film would have no center.
In the DVD documentary, Wahlberg discusses the 4-1/2 years he spent in active training for his part before "The Fighter" was finally shot. The film was delayed several times and Wahlberg took on other movie roles over those years, but he remained in fighting shape throughout. His dedication to portraying Micky Ward is evident with every move he makes, inside and outside of the ring.
Like the best films about boxing, "The Fighter" is also about families and relationships, class and culture. Like one of Micky's late-round combinations, it connects with both the head and the heart.