*The Fighter (R)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
As a story about a scrappy, working-class nobody who gets an unexpected shot at the title, The Fighter was bound to earn comparisons to Rocky. And the comparisons are justified — for all the best possible reasons.
Since Sylvester Stallone's Oscar-winning drama became film-industry shorthand for the underdog-makes-good sports narrative, it's been easy to lose sight of what made the original Rocky so unique. Before Mr. T, there was a story overflowing with quirky characters and a vibrant sense of place. That's the vibe director David O. Russell manages to capture in this based-on-a-true-story: the conviction that the first 90 minutes isn't just going to be formulaic filler on the way to the inspiring finale.
You get that sense immediately, watching "Irish" Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his half-brother, Dickie Ecklund (Christian Bale) walking through Lowell, Mass., amid adoring throngs in 1993. Dickie, who once went toe-to-toe with Sugar Ray Leonard but subsequently fell into crack addiction, is being followed by a documentary film crew; Micky, seven years younger and still pursuing his own boxing career, has Dickie as his trainer and his mother, Alice (Melissa Leo) as his manager. But the "family business" thing isn't working out so well for Micky. Between Dickie's drug-induced unreliability and Alice's lack of connections, Micky has hit a losing streak and a likely drift into obscurity.
Ordinarily, that would be the cue for a conflict between a kid staying true to his dream and staying true to his roots, especially once Micky hooks up with Charlene (Amy Adams), who encourages Micky to look out for himself rather than for his family. Indeed, that's the basic dynamic at play, but Russell also focuses on smaller character moments, like Charlene's tense introduction to Micky's gauntlet of antagonistic sisters, or Dickie trying to raise money for Micky's training by selling a pyramid scam to Cambodian immigrants. Sure, there's the obligatory "winning streak montage," but the way Russell allows the story room to breathe makes its bows to genre structure feel far less conventional.
It also means that the performances have similar breathing room, and the cast takes full advantage. Bale is brilliant as the motor-mouthed Dickie. His is a classic portrait of a hustler so stuck into his own chatter that he's lost track of any consequences to his actions. Leo isn't far behind him as a mother who uses the idea that only family can be trusted as a psychological weapon to keep control of Micky's career, and Adams emerges from her more familiar twinkly and naïve characters to do terrific work as the tough-minded Charlene. Wahlberg is an under-appreciated actor, but he's somewhat passive through much of The Fighter, albeit by necessity. It's the powerful personalities around him that give this story so much energy.
Of course, eventually we see Micky in the ring getting his improbable title shot — a 2000 bout in England against Shea Neary. And there's nothing overtly wrong with the fight scenes themselves; there's just nothing particularly interesting about them. The final 20 minutes feels like something of a letdown, but for 90 minutes, The Fighter serves up a marvelously loose-limbed look at fascinating people bumping against one another in a convincingly realized place. Like Rocky, it understands that we need to care just as much about what happens when the hero isn't wearing a pair of gloves.