AFI Fest Review: The Fighter is a Contender

by Anne Thompson
November 10, 2010 9:39 AM
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Thompson on Hollywood
The buzz on the street about David O. Russell's The Fighter--the boxing movie is a rousing crowd-pleaser, stolen by Christian Bale--was correct. "I had to do a lot of cheating, stealing and lying to get the movie made," said star and producer Mark Wahlberg at the start of the "secret" screening at AFI Fest (revealed via Paramount press release Tuesday morning). "I'm happy it got to the big screen. It took me such a long time to get the movie made that if you don't like the movie, I'll do two hours of hard labor. I did it to get the movie made and I will do it for anyone who doesn't like it."

But the $25-million 90s period movie is more than a quest for a boxing title (trailer below). Written by Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson, based on the true story of Lowell, Mass. boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his crack-smoking brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), the film is also a messily dysfunctional family drama, where Mom (Melissa Leo, giving Jacki Weaver's obsessive gangster mom in Animal Kingdom a run for her money) manages the career of younger son Micky, as his older brother, once the Pride of Lowell, plots a comeback. The two siblings love each other deeply, but Dicky's crack-fueled fights and missed training bouts are eating away at Micky, who keeps getting whacked around. Enter new girlfriend, curvy bartender Charlene (Amy Adams), who has no problem literally fighting off Mom and her pack of red-haired daughters, who see Charlene as a threat to the family-run business.

Will Micky recover his confidence and win some fights? Will his brother get his act together and help him out? Will the family explode? While Russell cannily shoots this in hand-held verite style--going broad with Leo and her brood as comic relief--the movie draws us into the drama, compelling us to watch how these entertainingly messed-up people resolve their craziness. Wahlberg, who earned a supporting actor nomination for The Departed, plays his welterweight as an oddly passive "stepping stone"; he needs a posse of support to push his chistled body into the ring. Without them them in his corner, he's psychologically weakened. The film's central moment shows Dicky in mid-fight, nose-to-nose with his reeling brother, feeding him strength, will and a winning mantra. Wahlberg's dull-eyed, sweet receptivity--while combined with brute strength-- may hurt his awards chances.

The other performances are more than fine; Adams has been nominated twice, Leo once. Adams wins points for authenticity over Leo's bigger-than-life mother hen. Paramount plans a supporting campaign for both. Bale risks going too far with his druggie extrovert, but he slowly wins us over. He seems to excel when he's dieted and sweated out every ounce of fat on his frame. He should land a supporting nomination; it would be his first.

Will the movie make the best picture top ten? If all goes right (reviews/box office/critics and guild prizes), it's possible. The actors shine in this and should be rewarded.

Mandeville produced, Relativity financed the film with Weinstein Co. repping foreign sales; distributor Paramount came in for a few territories after production. Wahlberg brought in Russell, with whom he worked with on Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees, Russell's last film in 2004. The movie opens December 10.

UPDATE: The Playlist rounds up the usual suspects, and THR says everyone likes it, but wait a second, THR's own

More: Awards, Genres, Headliners, Studios, Video, Reviews, Oscars, Drama, Action, Christian Bale, Paramount/Vantage/Insurge/CBS, Trailers

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