Do we really need another rags-to-riches movie about boxing? Probably not. But filmmakers keep making them, and we keep watching them. Whether you like boxing or not, there is something cathartic about the hero's struggle itself. Like the best boxing movies, the latest one is more about the fighter than the fight, more about the family duking it out outside the ring than the boxing going on inside it. We can always use another film about family dynamics and the will to overcome obstacles, and The Fighter is one of those.
Dickie Eklund (Christian Bale) is the classic small-town hero, still basking in the glory of a quasi-victory 14 years earlier, in a bout where he knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard. Not knocked out, mind you, but knocked down. And some say that Sugar Ray actually tripped. Nevertheless, Dickie is called “The Pride of Lowell,” and as this film begins he is swaggering down the street in that Massachusetts town with an HBO film crew in tow, documenting his “comeback” as a trainer for his younger half-brother, Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg).
Micky’s manager is his mother Alice (Melissa Leo), a hard-driving, chain-smoking, no-nonsense matriarch in tight pants and high heels. Leo is over-the-top perfect in this role, from the moment she prances into the gym, clipboard in hand, and asks the film crew, “Did you get that? Do you need me to do it again?”
Alice is the ultimate stage mother: pushy, strong, manipulative, and naively confident in her ability to manage her sons’ careers. “You gonna let her talk to me like that?” she rages at Micky when his girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) stands up to the rude and domineering matriarch. “I have done everything for you!” she screeches. She is also a classic enabler. Like many mothers who know how to give affection but don’t know how to parent, Alice sees no wrong in Dickie, and her constant sympathy and approval contribute to his sense of entitlement and its disastrous consequences.
Boxing movies are never really about the fights; they’re about the fighter.
The story of fraternal conflict is as old as Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob. In this case, two brothers vie for their parents’ love and attention, while trying to work out their own relationship. Dickie is clearly Alice’s favorite, but since he is virtually washed up as a boxer, Micky becomes the family’s new great hope — even his seven sleazy sisters are completely focused on the light they share from their brothers’ moments of fame. Dickie is the son mired in past glory, and Micky is the son trying to break away and rise above his toxic roots. But Micky is constantly pulled back by his love for his crazy family, and especially by his childlike love for his older brother.
As with many small-town heroes, adulthood has not been good to Dickie. He hangs out in bars and crack houses when he should be in the ring training and sparring with Micky. He shows up several hours late for training — while the HBO cameras keep rolling. He dives out the back window of his girlfriend’s house when he hears his mother coming, afraid of her disapproval. Nevertheless, throughout the first half of the film, Dickie is high on life, hopped up, and wide eyed. His backstreet swagger oozes confidence and joy.
Partway through the film, however, we realize that the documentary isn’t going to be about Dickie’s comeback as a fighter and trainer; it’s going to be HBO’s High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell (1995). Richard Farrell, who directed the HBO doc, plays a character much like himself in a cameo as a cameraman in this film. Of course, Dickie and his family don’t know the true topic of the documentary, and their moment of realization is devastating, performed with an understated emotion from each actor that is pitch-perfect. Farrell captured the tragedy of crack addiction in the real documentary, and Russell does it again with this film. (Note to self: never trust anyone with a movie camera, no matter what the person tells you is being filmed.)
Boxing movies are never really about the fights; they’re about the fighter, so this film as aptly titled. It’s not about one fighter, though, but about several — Dickie, the has-been boxer fighting to regain his former glory; Micky, the stronger brother fighting to break out of the other’s shadow; Charlene, the girlfriend fighting for respect; and Alice, the mother fighting for her family’s success. All of this takes place in a setting that has seen more rags than riches over the years, a place where boxing can be a pathway to money and status, but more often leads to broken hearts and broken bones.
The Fighter is a film about choice — about choosing to work hard, or not; choosing to be self-interested, or not; choosing the right friends, or not. Dickie’s choices land him in prison; Micky’s choices (when unencumbered by Dickie’s and Alice’s management) land him on a path to the welterweight championship. The scenes juxtaposing Micky’s training in the gym with Dickie’s sparring in the prison yard (and Alice’s chasing her husband with a frying pan) say a lot about choice and consequence in this film about fighting — it’s not just about beating someone up, but about fighting to survive.
This is also a film about love, and how to express it when the person you love is toxic; here, true love is expressed by knowing when someone is hurting, and reaching out to carry the load. This is a film about breaking away, but also about hanging on. How Dickie and Micky manage to do both makes The Fighter well worth watching, even though it might be called“justanother boxing film.”