Dec. 17 2010 12:00 AM

Outstanding performances and fine writing make 'The Fighter' worth cheering

The title of director David O. Russell’s film is simple
enough — “The Fighter” — but which character it refers to is not so clear. It
would seem to be Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), the welterweight who’s been
battling his way through the fight game in the early 1990s. But it could just
as easily be his half-brother, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), a former boxer
who seemed to be a champion in the making more than a decade earlier, before
giving in to drug addiction.

The differences between the two are immediately evident.
Micky is composed and focused, dealing with his challenges as calmly and
reasonably as possible, while Dicky has the anxious eyes of an animal on the
run and the uneasy tone of voice of someone who’s continually trying to think
up the next lie he’ll tell. When he’s sitting down, his legs constantly wiggle,
and when he’s on his feet he moves with the awkward, outwardly confident stride
of a crushingly insecure man trying to put on a show for everyone around him.
He might as well have “once-promising” tattooed on his forehead.

Vivid personalities and perfectly tuned performances are the
hallmarks of this compelling character study, based on a true story. Micky and
Dicky may be complete opposites, but they’re both under the thumb of a
mother/manager who uses love as a lethal weapon. Alice Ward (Melissa Leo) is a
much-married wildcat of a woman whose blonde honey-bun hairdo might as well be
a crash helmet. She clings to the yellowing scrapbooks documenting Dicky’s
glory days as if they might contain magic spells capable of bringing back the
good old days. Even so, Alice is practical enough to know Micky is still her
best shot at returning to the big time, although, at 31, he’s getting
perilously close to being past his prime.

Wahlberg, Bale and Leo superbly showcase the scary
psychological connections between these three, with Dicky and Alice fervently
avoiding reality and counting on Micky at every turn to shield them from the
truth about themselves. The mutually poisonous tie between Dicky and Alice is
particularly gripping. When she catches him sneaking around a local crackhouse,
he knows exactly how to immediately win back her trust: by warbling the Bee
Gees’ “I Started a Joke” in the voice of an eager-to-please little boy.

When experts advise Micky to dump Dicky as his trainer,
Micky recites a defense that’s obviously been drummed into his mind over the
years: “He taught me everything I know. I can’t do it without him. He’s always
been in my corner.”

Micky’s wake-up call arrives in the form of sharp-eyed
Charlene (a no-nonsense, tough-talking Amy Adams, operating in a galaxy far,
far away from “Julie and Julia” and “Enchanted”), a bartender who’s had a few
knockdowns herself: Having partied too often in college and lost her
scholarship, she knows all too well what it feels like to step onto the
downward spiral. It also takes her very little time to size up Micky’s
situation and to realize that Alice and Dicky are leeches and that Micky is
their blood bank.

In its second act, “The Fighter” develops into a tug-of-war,
with Alice employing every possible passive-aggressive trick to hold on to
Micky and Charlene urging him to finally acknowledge what he’s known for years.
If Alice is the Wicked Witch in this scenario, her seven daughters (most of
whom have the well-worn look of what a friend used to call “the girls who live
in fear of the ‘last call’ lights”) make up her army of Flying Monkeys, hanging
around Alice’s house and waiting fro her commands. They chatter incessantly, dub
Charlene an “MTV girl” — their code word for “slut” — and fawn over Dicky, even
as he continues to fall apart.

“The Fighter” includes several boxing matches, which Russell
photographs in the slightly glossy/grainy format of an HBO special. But the
most exciting bouts happen outside of the ring, as Charlene takes on Alice and
Dicky — the verbal free-for-all between Bale and Adams is hilariously nasty —
and Micky squares off with himself, struggling to balance his devotion to his
family with his desire for a happier future. The going gets rocky, but this is
not “Rocky”: It’s a searing, touching and powerfully played picture of a world
in which the real triumph may be merely surviving and living with your eyes

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