Mention the name David O. Russell, he's the unique kind of director who made a career out of quirky comedies (1994's SPANKING THE MONKEY, 1996's FLIRTING WITH DISASTER, 1999's THREE KINGS, and 2004's I HEART HUCKABEES). But who could have thought that his longtime comeback since that I HEART HUCKABEES flop, turns out to be his radical departure of the usual norm? His fifth feature, THE FIGHTER, is Russell's surprisingly toned-down directorial effort. It's certainly an odd move but it turns out that THE FIGHTER is also his most mature and best movie to date.
Inspired by the striking true story of "Irish" Micky Ward and his relentless brother Dicky Edlund, this boxing drama focuses on the early years of Micky Ward until his eventual rise to fame. On July 18, 1978, Lowell, Massachusetts, Dicky (Christian Bale) is a local legend after being crowned as "The Pride of Lowell" following from his unforgettable knockout against boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard. But that was fifteen years ago. Instead of continuing his career successfully, Dicky is eventually wasted himself being a victim of crack abuse. While his glory day as a boxer is way past behind him, he's now becoming a trainer to his younger brother, Micky (Mark Wahlberg), who wants him to become world boxing champion someday. While Micky has a little reputation for being an impressive amateur boxer with a devastating left hook, many peoples -- fans, trainers and other professional boxers -- are frequently looked down at him as a "stepping stone" fighter. On the night before his much-anticipated first fight, Micky make his move at the sexy barmaid, Charlene (Amy Adams) and wants her to become his girlfriend. He also make a huge promise to her and everybody else who support him dearly that he will win the fight. However, everything goes downhill especially after the last-minute lineup change has caused him such a brutal and embarrassing defeat. He ends up feeling miserable, and not even have a gut to call up his girlfriend but Charlene remains supportive enough to back him up and their relationship is gradually picking up steam. On the other hand, he also begins to realize that he needs true professional to reach his full potential, rather than relying on his trainer brother who often goes missing at the crack house. Charlene agrees with his decision, but unfortunately that decision has particularly angered his mother Alice (Melissa Leo), who had always served as his manager. Things get worse when Dicky gets himself into deep trouble attempt to run away from the law. Not only Dicky's criminal act lands him into jail, Micky also gets his hand being brutally bashed by an angry police officer following from an ugly arrest. With Dicky in jail, Micky shifts his focus completely to pull himself together by subsequently recovered his injured hand so he can fight again. With the support of his father, George (Jack McGee), Charlene, and a new business-minded manager, Micky is moving forward to rise his boxing career into soaring height.
Boxing drama about underdog fighter is nothing new at all, but this particular subject matter is often inspirational tale hard to ignore (1976's ROCKY and to lesser extent, 2005's CINDERELLA MAN quickly comes to mind). THE FIGHTER does succeed on that level alone, even though the underdog story offers here is pretty much conventional all around. Still, screenwriters Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson skillfully manage out a thoughtful and riveting character-driven drama that ultimately preventing from being one of those listless genre movies. Much like 2004's MILLION DOLLAR BABY, the boxing element here plays second fiddle whereas it is the intimate human drama that binds the movie altogether. THE FIGHTER is especially remarkable when it focuses on the hardship and obstacles Micky have to face endless dilemma with his family and his girlfriend.
Not to forget also, is Russell's keen observation on making sure each of his talented cast shined with their respective role. As a result, THE FIGHTER contains some of the best acting ensembles of the year. In his brilliantly understated performance, Mark Wahlberg is simply good here. Physical wise, he is certainly convincing as a boxer (a tremendous result he has earned from his five years worth of strict training regime). But ironically, the real spotlight here are the impeccable supporting cast. In his stunning method acting since 2004's THE MACHINIST, Christian Bale drops weight again to achieve the skeletal frame of Dicky Edlund. His physical transformation alone is worth watching. Other than that, Bale is just as spontaneous as he is a lively spark. Playing a hardened tough guy is nothing new to him, but Bale's dramatic turn here shines a new light we hardly seen him before -- that is of course, letting loose. No doubt this is his finest acting role to date. Equally dynamic is Melissa Leo, in her loud-mouthed turn as Alice. Her showy performance is just as vivid as Dicky does, and she's simply engaging enough to watch for. Last but not least is Amy Adams. Instead of what could have been a thankless role playing Micky's love interest, she truly excels here as the level-headed girlfriend who is both radiant and exceptionally tough.
While radical change is seen all around in Russell's direction here, he still never forget his roots. There are underlying sense of quirky humor here, particularly on the broad side of showcasing comic relief involving Dicky and his seven (no kidding) sisters. It's quite awkward at times, although it's still refreshing bit nonetheless. Technical wise, THE FIGHTER displays some worthwhile moments here with Russell's constantly fluid camerawork. The boxing scene, particularly in the hard-hitting finale, is brilliantly shot in television style to give the sense of urgency that keep the viewers feeling involved all the time.
In an effort to get this movie done, THE FIGHTER is originally a notoriously troubled production. Way back in 2005, Mark Wahlberg has been shopping around his particular pet project to get the movie greenlit. At that time, Darren Aronofsky is originally attached to direct the movie but left the production to work on BLACK SWAN (2010) instead, even though he remains as executive producer here. The eventual directing part goes to David O. Russell who is heavily suggested by Christian Bale. However David O. Russell's bad reputation as one of the notoriously difficult director has originally made Wahlberg feeling uncomfortable to work with him especially what he went through before in 1999's THREE KINGS. But Bale insists to collaborate with Russell so much that Wahlberg ends up agreeing anyway. Bad reputation or not, Russell ends up executing one of the best movies of the year. THE FIGHTER may not have been ranked alongside with some of those great boxing masterpieces but one thing for sure -- this is certainly not to be missed.