“The Fighter” plays like “Rocky” set in the same neighborhood as “Gone Baby Gone;” indeed, Ben Affleck ought to watch this film to understand why his first film was so much better than his most recent one, “The Town.” I’ve mentioned before that lower-class, Irish-Catholic Boston has become fertile ground for cinema the last few years, and “The Fighter” can take its place alongside “Mystic River,” “The Departed” and the aforementioned kidnapping flick as classics in this sub-genre.
Mark Wahlberg is a young professional boxer, and Christian Bale is his older brother, who once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard in a 10 round fight. Wahlberg might be an up-and-coming fighter, or he might be a stepping stone for up-and-coming fighters; depends on who you ask. Bale is a brilliant strategist, but also a major distraction, thanks primarily to his crack addiction. A documentary film crew follows him around; he tells people they’re making a film about his comeback; really it’s about the devastating effects crack has on a family, and Bale gives them plenty of material to work with. Melissa Leo is their mother and Wahlberg’s manager; she’s fiercely devoted to her boys, but also grossly overestimates her skills as a manager. She also has seven grown daughters who still live at home. The way this family relates, and argues, is alternately fascinating, hilarious and baffling. (I especially got a kick out of the logic in their heated arguments: ”You stand there in my kitchen and disagree with me while you owe me two hundred dollars? What’s wrong with you?”)
The stars align for “The Fighter” in remarkable ways. This is the best work Christian Bale has done in years, and possibly ever; he leaves behind the steel-jawed, monotone characters of the Batman and Terminator movies and reminds us he really can act, given the right script. Amy Adams, who plays Wahlberg’s girlfriend, is a revelation – I’d pretty much written her off and disarmingly cute, which is fun to watch sometimes, but not much else. She carries herself with a strength, grit and anger in this role that I’d never have thought her capable of. Melissa Leo disappears so completely into her role that I didn’t even realize it was her until the credits rolled. Meanwhile, Mark Wahlberg stays understated at the center of the film, letting the fireworks go off around him; like the eye at the center of the storm. I don’t know if it’s a great performance, but it’s exactly the one needed. Everyone is doing great work here.
The boxing scenes are filmed with a different film stock– and perhaps a different class of camera altogether — and as a result they feel real, like you’re watching the fight on pay-per-view. It’s rare for me to get excited about sports scenes in movies, since they’re both choreographed/performed by stunt men and heading towards a predictable outcome. (Sports scenes are different from regular action because, well, I know what a real boxing match or basketball game looks like. I’ve never seen a high-speed car chase, or knock-down, drag out bar fight, so I have to believe what the movies tell me they look like.) All of that is to set this up: the boxing scenes in “The Fighter” are (aside from that hotel scene in “Inception”) the most exciting action sequences I’ve seen this year. I found myself really cheering for Wahlberg, and I nearly jumped out of my seat at one triumphant moment.
But “The Fighter” is about more than just boxing. It’s about the ways that a close family can both lift you up and drag you down at the same time, and about navigating those rough and tricky waters. There are no villains in “The Fighter;” there are only broken people, alternating between doing their best for the ones they love and making excuses for the ways and times they’ve let them down. Every now and then, a movie comes along and reminds me of why I love movies. I get so caught up in the stories, the characters, the performances, the plot, indeed, the whole gestalt of the thing that I never, for two hours, think about anything but what’s happening on the screen. After a fairly disappointing year at the movies, “The Fighter” has reignited my love and passion for the silver screen. It’s my favorite movie of the year.