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The Fighter

An Oscar Contender

Rating 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Almost two decades ago, Granta, a British literary monthly known best stateside for its annual “Best Young Novelists” round-up, published a controversial issue (No. 37), “Family: They F*ck You Up.” There’s no better example of that truism (if it isn’t a truism, it should be) than The Fighter, director David O. Russell’s (Soldiers Pay, I Heart Huckabees, Three Kings) first film in six years.

The Fighter opens predictably with “Irish” Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a Lowell, Mass.-based struggling welterweight boxer, reluctantly agreeing to fight a boxer with a 20-pound advantage. Dutiful to a fault, Ward fights to earn his half of the purse, money necessary to keep his mother-manager Alice (Melissa Leo) and his brother-trainer Dickie Eklund (Christian Bale) afloat financially.

Ward, however, wants to be more than just a “steppingstone,” a word used by college-educated bartender, Charlene (Amy Adams), who becomes his girlfriend and partner, much to the dissatisfaction of his mother, brother, and his sisters. Ward wants to become welterweight champion, but a lackluster ring record and the athlete’s eternal enemy, time, stand against him.

Superficially at least, The Fighter follows the usual permutations of the crowd-pleasing Rocky-style “underdog” boxing drama. However, ultimately they’re secondary to Ward’s complex, layered family dynamics — dynamics that are as big, if not bigger, threats to Ward’s boxing career and his personal life.

Ward’s relationship with Eklund, his older half-brother, a one-time boxer who two decades earlier took welterweight champion Sugar Ray Leonard (considered by many boxing enthusiasts as the “best pound-for-pound fighter” of his generation) the 10-round distance, but ultimately losed the fight via decision. That one fight has made Eklund the so-called “Pride of Lowell, Massachusetts,” but it’s also defined and constrained his adult life. A washout as a boxer, Eklund became Ward’s trainer, but he’s haunted by his own personal failures, and struggles with addictive, self-destructive behavior.

In The Fighter, Ward, hemmed in by what he sees as his family obligations, is passive in and out of the ring. It takes Charlene to coax Ward away from brother-worship into acknowledging the negative impact his dysfunctional family has had on his personal and professional life, something neither Eklund nor Alice, acting out of self-interest rather than Ward’s, will or can admit. It’s the battle outside the ring, between Ward, Eklund, and Alice, that elevates The Fighter beyond the predictable limitations of the boxing/sports drama subgenre.

Understandably, Bale has received praise for his performance and not just because he lost weight (again) to play the drug-addicted Eklund, but because he makes Eklund a tragically flawed character, incapable of facing his failures, compulsively watchable. It might be a mannered performance, but it never feels inauthentic. Adams and Leo also deserve similar praise and, mostly likely, Oscar nominations, for their roles as Charlene and Alice, respectively.