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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
Nov. 10, 2010 | 12:31 PM

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When Mark Wahlberg took the mike to introduce The Fighter, the “secret screening” at AFI Fest 2010 Presented by Audi, he won over the audience right away.  “I haven’t seen a crowd this big since I was on stage with the Funky Bunch” Wahlberg quipped.  The line got a big laugh from the sold out crowd at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, but Wahlberg wasn’t just goofing, and followed up the shout to his hip hop background with a promise.  Citing all the work that had been required to get this project to the screen (In addition to starring, he’s one of the film’s producers), Wahlberg promised that if anyone in the audience didn’t enjoy the film, he would personally come to their house and refund their wasted time with two hours of hard labor.  As it turns out, he could make this promise with confidence, as The Fighter is a crowd pleaser if there ever was one.

Filmed on location in Lowell, Massachussetts and based on the true story of “Irish” Micky Ward and his half-brother Dicky Eklund,the film paints a gripping portrait of two brothers with dreams of heavyweight glory.  The elder, Dicky (Christian Bale), known in his prime as “The Pride of Lowell”, got close to the title in the 70’s when he knocked down legend Sugar Ray Leonard in the ring.  Bruised by defeat and unfulfilled dreams, Dicky now spends so much time smoking crack that he’s become the poster boy for addiction in a new HBO documentary.  In between hits on the pipe, he attempts to pass on his still formidable boxing skills to his younger brother Micky (Wahlberg), who has the talent but is getting nowhere thanks to the bumbling management of his family.  The ringleader is his mother Alice (Melissa Leo), whose well intentioned efforts at management are fueled by chain smoking and the strong silent support of her seven, count them, seven daughters. 

Pushing against this mountain of highlights and hairspray is Micky’s new girlfriend, Charlene (Amy Adams), who sees his potential and offers a valuable outsider’s perspective.  As a once promising college high jumper now serving up shots at the local bar, she also sees an opportunity to live vicariously through Micky’s success.

As with any entry in the boxing genre, this type of film comes with certain expectations.  We expect to see ups, downs, at least one extended training montage, and above all, the climax where the underdog takes down the champ in spectacular fashion.  Producer/star Wahlberg and director David O. Russell aren’t looking to reinvent the wheel here, and The Fighter delivers on all of these counts.  Russell’s direction is mostly invisible, but he gives the film exactly the right pacing, and also supplements the action with a healthy dose of archival HBO boxing footage from the 70’s.  (It’s not hard to imagines Wahlberg, who also executive produces “Entourage”, pulling some strings in this area.) 

What truly elevates The Fighter in the end are the performances.  Bale, Adams, and Leo all give showcase performances here, and all will likely be front runners in the upcoming awards season.  As the crack addicted Dicky, Bale has the showiest part, but his moments of reflection and redemption are every bit as powerful as the scenes where the drugs send him off the rails.  The scene between Adams and Bale on her front porch before Mickey’s title bout features some of the finest film acting you’ll see this year.

But this film is called The Fighter, and it couldn’t exist without Mark Wahlberg.  Putting aside the physical demands of the role, Wahlberg doesn’t hit a false note in this movie.  His quiet intensity is a perfect foil for the more brash characterizations brought by Bale and Leo, and he and Adams have real chemistry in their scenes together.  All of these elements converge in the boxing sequences, where we can really feel Micky’s internal struggles as he bobs and weaves amid the barrage of punches.

Fans of the fight pic genre will find a solid entry in The Fighter, but the film offers a multitude of rewards for those who’ve never given the Sweet Science a second thought.

The Fighter opens in limited release on December 10th,  and in theatres nationwide December 17th.


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