The Fighter

Upon walking into the new David O Russell film, The Fighter, I had a bet with a friend. ‘If Christian Bale doesn’t get an intense speech in the final scene of the film in which he lays down the central tenets of family, honour, integrity etc and says something along the lines of ‘Do it because I never could’, I’ll give you a fiver. If he does, give me a pound.’

‘OK’, said my friend, liking the sound of this bet.

Collecting the quid on the way out, I was struck yet again at how films about boxing are rather like high-end comfort food. You are guaranteed raw emotion, intense dynamics between boxer and trainer and class/family based tension as well. It’s no surprise that the likes of Rocky, Raging Bull and Million Dollar Baby have all cleaned up at awards ceremonies, and even less of a surprise that The Fighter will doubtless do the same. What does surprise is how entertaining the whole blend is.

Although the title might lead one to expect a single-character focus a la The Wrestler, The Fighter (a true story, we are reminded at the end) focuses on two main protagonists, Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), half-brothers in a grim working-class area of Massachusetts. Eklund is a former boxer, a crack addict and a man whose local fame lies on his having knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard in a fight; Ward, his more self-effacing younger sibling, is now being trained by the unreliable Eklund and managed by his fearsome mother Alice (Melissa Leo), as well as dealing with his equally terrifying seven siblings. A relationship with college dropout waitress Charlene (Amy Adams) gives his personal life focus, but the increasingly out-of-control Dicky and his mother mean that his boxing career’s over almost before it’s started. Or is it?

I cordially despised Russell’s previous film, I Heart Huckabees, considering it one of the weirdest and most bizarre wastes of talent and time I’d ever seen. However, his earlier films, Three Kings and Flirting With Disaster, had their moments, and this is a welcome return to form. Some of it’s as broadly comic as you might expect – a running gag about Dicky’s preferred exit from a crack house is an excellent one – but it also makes way for some superb performances (an emaciated, twitchy Bale being the stand-out, naturally, but there isn’t a weak link from any of the four leads) and, as the fighting begins to kick in, the predictably stirring triumph-against-adversity narrative that finds space for some interesting twists on the usual pattern along the way.

At the risk of sounding like a cliché, it’s a knock-out. (Sorry, sorry.)

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