In On the Waterfront, a down-for-the-count Marlon Brando pined to his brother that he coulda been a contender, he coulda been somebody. And that’s basically what the half-brothers Dicky and Micky say to each other in David O. Russell’s The Fighter—substituting the past conditional for the past and future tenses, respectively. In the end, they both upgrade to the present tense. Although it’s based on the true story of Micky Ward—the Lowell, Mass., homeboy who became the World Boxing Union’s welterweight champion in 2000—the movie resembles Rocky: before Rocky lost his innocence. (To sequels—not to Adrian.) There’s a passing resemblance, too, to The Pope of Greenwich Village, with its good-brother / bad-brother dichotomy; Christian Bale seems to have based his Dicky on Eric Roberts’s wriggly, petulant hood Paulie. Dicky is himself a former champ; he became the pride of Lowell after defeating Sugar Ray Leonard back in 1978. But, by the time The Fighter is set, in the early 1990s, Dicky has devolved into a gaunt-faced crackhead; he still takes a swing every time he takes a step but his infectious swag is like a storm system brewing behind a pallid kabuki mask. The rings he now fights in are under his eyes.
Has ever an actor been more appropriately named than Christian Bale: two words that denote aery earnestness, a touch of the divine as well as a smack of malign, and even a hint of anguish? This Brit made a great American Psycho; but once he lost his mind, it looked as though he’d never recover it. Sanity appears to bore him. As The Dark Knight, he was torpid—perhaps because the director drooled over the banality of Heath Ledger’s evil and didn’t care a lick about good. But Bale looses focus, too; his wackadoodle dexterity was obvious in The Machinist, The Prestige, and Rescue Dawn—but he was spewing solar flares out of black holes. Despite being a cacophony of tweaky rhythms, his Dicky does have a core—a fallen brah’s braggadocio and a cracked sense of street humor. Mark Wahlberg’s exceptionally sweet and mannered performance as Micky seems to have grounded Bale; maybe Wahlberg’s selflessness tempered Bale’s masochism. Although Wahlberg doesn’t have any great scenes to himself, he conveys the saturnine softness of Brando; his up-turned mouth is always edging for a fight, but his eyes are far more conciliatory. It’s not a revelation by now, but he’s long since wiped Marky Mark off the marquee. He forces my mind to open wide enough to entertain the possibility that the next De Niro could be Justin Bieber.
The Fighter is a fine piece of work, though not a work of art. It doesn’t transcend its genre, like The Wrestler did (Aronofsky is listed as an executive producer); but it hits all the familiar notes in a way that wrings out more than the familiar sentiments. The first scene made me a little antsy: the -ickys careen through the hood—M- a little abashed; D-, ghetto blaster in hand, a fistic Pied Piper taking his town in tow—both on an apparent course for working-class Capra-corn. But the beauty of this picture is its immersion into local color; Russell is never above his subject—and neither is he looking at it from below, with reverence. I rolled my eyes when Dennis Lehane’s Mass-hole exceptionalism soiled Casey Affleck’s opening narration in the otherwise mild Gone Baby Gone; but these Lowellians are too tough, and, perhaps, too insular, to buy into that brand of bunk. The few daubs of style that the director allows himself—like the bouffant-topped Greek chorus that the boxers’ sisters comprise—may be a little too coarse, because he’s dealing with real people. (Otherwise, they’re not too different from the upper-crust caricatures in The King’s Speech or 8 1/2. They make for a witty “compile character,” cool-hearted though the effect may be.) The whole family reverts to obeisant putty whenever their materfamilias, Alice, is around. Melissa Leo—yet another appropriate surname!—gives Alice the squawk of an albatross and the pride of a lioness. Her children address her by name, but maybe they should call her “Sir”; her family is an enterprise, and she’s both queen and C.E.O. Russell even makes the music-to-loose-your-virginity-to-in-the-backseat-of-an-’86-Plymouth overcome any sports-montage stigmas: These sonic ’roids may be clichés, but they’re part of the guys’ pop culture.
There is a flipside. At one point, when Dicky’s in jail, he watches a nationally broadcast T.V. special about his decline: High on Crack Street. At first, he provides a sardonic commentary for his fellow inmates—who cheer his every jeer—but he comes to see that the joke is on him, and his family. This idea of seeing oneself reflected in a highly public mirror is as contemporary as it is fascinating; but it is probably the only interesting theme that the filmmakers develop. And they make a few goofs. We’re never sure when we are in the timeline, or how much time has passed since the last scene; and it seemed strange that Micky wasn’t awarded a moment with the ladies of his life—Alice and his girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams)—after winning the championship. But Russell had been suffering from Mark Romanek Syndrome—this is his first feature since I Heart Huckabees, six years ago—so maybe he needed something a little stiff (that is to say, conventional) to aid in his convalescence. His commercial strategy seems akin to his heroes’ Zen pugilism: clobber your opponent once he thinks you’re a goner. David Edelstein called The King’s Speech a “middlebrow masterpiece”; The Fighter is a nothin’-special knockout.