Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Fighter (2010) – Review

The Fighter is a feel-good story, full of fantastic performances, directing and scenes. At its heart, director David O. Russell has created a narrative about the triumph of spirit, structured around the complications of family dynamics – specifically focusing on the relationship of Mickey Ward with his brother Dicky Eklund and his mother. Mickey grew up in the shadow of his brother both within his family and in his neighborhood – yet Mickey still regards his brother as his hero and an essential part of his life and career as a boxer. The issue (and the driving force of the drama) is that Dicky is an unreliable crack head and their mother is in denial seemingly always taking Dicky’s side. This leaves Mickey with seemingly a lack of personality and the narrative with undefined roles (aka, who is the main character). Dicky, apparently like real life, steals the film and is the center of every scene he is in – Mickey relegated to an observer, yet this is his story, but also a little Dicky’s too. The camera does not exclusively stay with Mickey, nor does it only show his journey. Dicky’s progression is also shown and given significant narrative time. This hurts the film a little as Mickey is the character the audience is supposed to connect with and root for, and while that certainly happens by the end, for a large part of the film he is not charismatic especially with Dicky on-screen. This changes the film from a gripping narrative drama to an informative biography, in which the viewer watches to see the outcome to the “true” story and not because they care about Mickey (this is often the problem with true stories). Though at the same time, the film certainly does benefit from being based on a true story, as viewers are more sympathetic and feel that situations are more relatable when it is “true”. Thus, this both suffers and benefits from being about real people and real situations. David O. Russell is acutely aware of the power of the “true” story element, going so far as to shoot the boxing scenes as if the audience is watching them on TV at the time of their original airing and having the real Mickey and Dicky show up during the ending credits. The visual style of much of the film feels like a documentary as well. He is milking the story for all the emotional and inspirational potential it has. And he succeeds. The film is completely likable, relatable and engaging. By the end, the viewer is committed to these characters and is cheering just as much as the real people were when the events actually happened.  It is an interesting transition – from informative biography with a bland and a colorful character(s) to a film that conclusively has audience buy-in. The film is totally cliché, the supporting characters, outside the main four, are caricatures serving a purely narrative purpose and the audience is manipulated to emotionally flow with the film – yet the film does these things without feeling phony, a credit to David O. Russell and the performances. The main three supporting performances are all very good (one of them is amazing) and Mickey coming out of his shell only makes the ending more impactful. The Fighter by all accounts should be a Hollywood throwaway, but instead it is a great story that the audience is invested in culminating in a good film.

Technical and acting achievements: David O. Russell is already known as a good director, but this film elevates his career as his approach to what could have been an HBO special or TV-movie-of-the-week is remarkable. These were difficult characters and his direction elicits wonderful performances. The score by Michael Book is not overly memorable, but it did not need to be as the point of this film is the characters and the story. However, his score does work with the narrative making the emotional impact all the more moving. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography and Judy Becker’s production design work very well with the visual style of the film, giving it an authentic and in-your-face feel. The minor supporting cast is good, while mostly serving a narrative purpose, but Jack McGee stands out. Melissa Leo is very good in a difficult role of being both a caring and loving mother but also playing the film’s villain in a sense. Amy Adams plays a strong personality (much like all the principal supporting characters) and is powerful (though is not given too much to do). Christian Bale is absolutely amazing in the film. He commands attention in every scene. He is not even an actor; he is Dicky Eklund. Mark Wahlberg has the impossible task of playing against not only three phenomenal performances but also three forceful personalities. It is a tall order, and he gets swallowed up a bit, but that is the character and it only makes his transformation all the more poignant. It is one of his better performances.

The Fighter is a good boxing film and drama with great direction and performances. 8/10

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