Dicky Eklund was the pride of Lowell, Massachusetts. While he constantly reminds the neighbourhood of his glorious fight against Sugar Ray Leonard, he has descended into a crack addiction that is breaking his family apart, and hindering the training of his up-and-coming brother, Mickey. As Micky inches closer to big opportunities in the fighting world, he must also battle the demons his family place upon him.
Part sports movie, and part character drama, this film’s story is the sort of underdog tale that will be familiar to Rocky fans, and being a boxing film, it is readily susceptible to being compared to that series. If I may start with a focus on the sports movie angle, it diverges from the Rocky series most obviously by having less focus on the training (no big musical montages here) and the ‘big’ fights. Another divergence involving the fights this film has, one that is even more important to me,is a difference in how the actual fights were choreographed. I have never cared for the simplistic trading of head-shots, with little blocking, in the Rocky films. The Fighter has blood and blocking the way a true fight would have. The camera quality changes to something hand held looking when inside the ring with Micky and Dicky, and there are frequent flashes to the real life fight of Eklund vs Leonard, both of which help to make it seem like Mark Walhberg (who plays Mickey) is in an actual bout.
In a funny way, by grounding these fights, and not overly glamorizing them (think Rocky again), it helps the Character Drama side of the film I alluded to before. It all helps to emphasize the fact that the most crucial conflicts in this film are not between pugilists but between Micky, his new girlfriend, his trainers, and his family.
Though the story is very well structured and told, and it is indeed the masterful storytelling that takes what seems like standard sports movie moments and story arc and turns it into something all the more special, it is the performances that are the true highlight of this film. The most obvious performance to speak of is Christian Bale’s amazing recreation of Dicky. Bale, as Dicky, could shuffle through the streets of Lowell as if he were the Mayor and be everybody’s friend. But Bale does more than act goofy or eccentric simply to be charming, he also shines a light on how Dicky uses his natural charisma to pave over his very real struggles, and ultimately has the most profound and moving arc of all the characters when he is forced to confront the reality of his situation and the possibility of losing his brother’s affection and trust as both kin and trainer. As it is well known, Bale won an Oscar for his portrayal, and it was well deserved.
Naturally, as I discuss acting, I must follow Bale with that of the other Oscar winner, Melissa Leo’s complete disappearance into the role of the boys’ mother Alice. This performance is another prime example of how this cast did not just portray the people of Lowell, but truly became the people of Lowell. As noted in the commentary track, you could do side by side comparisons with actual footage from the original HBO specials that featured members of the Eklund family during the glorious fight days, or the crack cocaine documentary made years later, and find little to no difference between them. The greatest compliment I could give them, and already have but I insist of repeating, is these actors WERE the Eklund family, and the people of Lowell, for the duration of the film(ing).
This was a bit of a passion piece for star Mark Wahlberg as he was the one to originally pitch it to director David O. Russell, and ended up acting as both producer and starred as Micky. His physical presence as a legitimate prize fighter alone is remarkable. As this film sat in pre-production limbo for four years, Wahlberg trained consistently during that time, knowing his portrayal of Micky would come to fruition. With or without that knowledge, he makes for the perfect lead in this film as his naturally shy demeanor ignites around the more boisterous performances of Bale, Leo and Amy Adams as his girlfriend.
I feel the urge to continue writing more and more on this film, but I get the sense it is meant to be experienced and not analyzed. The sheer humanity of it can only come through by seeing these characters traverse through both humourous and heartbreaking trials and tribulations.
Widescreen 2.35:1. The picture adjusts according to scenario. When they are in the ring, it looks like a hand held sports cam, when they are in the neighbourhood, it looks basic and clear. There is a certain graininess that almost seems to be on purpose when in Lowell versus scenes at the big prize fights.
Dolby Digital 5.1 in English and in French. Things are well mixed and balanced considering how we are taken from quit neighbourhoods to roaring fight venues frequently. All speakers are active and all sound is clear, though a couple of time the dialogue gets a bit lost in low volume mumbles.
Subtitles available in English and French.
Commentary by Director David O. Russell: A very interesting commentary track. The way he talks about their 38 day shoot, and the many tidbits about each shot becomes just about as engaging as the film itself. Definitely the sort of track you can listen to and have the another viewing of the film pass by without you fully realizing it.
Warrior’s Code: Making of the Fighter: This featurette runs through the producer’s excitement for being sold this project to a series of profiles of the key characters and the actors who portray them, mostly consisting of the Eklund family. Each actor demonstrated an uncanny dedication to absorbing the characters as it would seem that ‘method’ style acting was the choice for all the leads.
A very enjoyable piece to view from the stories of how Mark Walhberg trained to the actors constantly being mistaken for their characters while filming in Lowell, often in the same buildings that the original story took place.
Honestly, I was hoping for some more footage of the original Eklunds in action. This seems like the perfect place to put them out again.
Some of the drama seems to be by the numbers, but it cannot be blamed for telling the truth about many triumphs over personal and professional adversity. With some successful injections of humour, pathos and heartfelt struggle, this is a memorable film that can stand very tall next to the likes of Rocky, and other sports films.