One could wholly expect to go into a film such as The Fighter, the story of a boxer who must first overcome his own family before trying to overcome the opponents in the ring, with preconceived notions and completely warranted trepidations of what a poorly made, middle-of-the-road mediocrity they were about to be witness to. There is precedence after all in such films (one need only remember Rocky and Rudy, as well as a similarly storied movie called Invincible, also starring Mark Wahlberg). One would be wrong though - wholly wrong. David O. Russell, the man who made Spanking the Monkey, Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees, has crafted the craftiest of films in The Fighter, from the director's opening credit sequence that is right out of the Scorsese playbook to the final battle royale that defies any and all possible cliche, and every cliche-shattering nuance in-between. The Fighter may not be free of all flaws (there is still that inherent touch of mediocrity that even the best directors are unable to weed out of such a story) but it truly gave quite the startling stir of surprise to this admittedly jaded critic.
Taking place in Lowell Mass., the home of Jack Kerouac and a seemingly endless cycle of piss poor poverty, Russell's film, based on real life events, takes us up and down those same roads so tired and worn in other films, but gives them a certain pop here that makes up that startling stir of surprise I spoke of earlier. But deft direction or not, the real stars of this film are the stars themselves. Full of bravura performance after bravura performance after bravura performance after beyond bravura performance, The Fighter is an actor's showcase if ever there were one. The film stars the aforementioned Mr. Wahlberg as real life Welterweight fighter Micky Ward in a subtle, underplayed performance that proves once again the thespianic ability of the rapper-turned-actor (don't call him Marky-Mark!), Amy Adams as his girl, playing, surprisingly well, against type as a sexy, brassy, balls-to-the-wall type (she even does a little of her own fisticuffs in the film) and the always remarkable Melissa Leo as Micky's overbearing bitch of a mother, all bravura performances indeed, but it is that beyond bravura performance that takes the proverbial cake (and yes, an actual cake is used as a metaphor later in the film).
That said performance is given by Christian Bale as Dickie, the crack-addicted older brother/trainer of Walhberg's titular would-be boxing champ. Never a surprise in any way whatsoever, Bale once again transforms himself into his character, to such a dangerous extent that one forgets at a certain point they are even watching Christian Bale. And dangerous is indeed the correct word, as the English actor has gone to such extremes in physicality (his beefed up, growling Batman interspersed with waifish, ghastly characters such as in The Machinist and here) he will probably one day just collapse under the strain of his own brilliant portrayals. Hopefully that will not happen for a long long long time, as we watch him steal each and every scene from each and every one of these fine actors working about him. Bale is an amazing creature to watch and The Fighter is a surprisingly sound movie to boot. [12/22/10]