Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Fighter

It’s gotten much easier this week for me to make predictions about which of the Oscar bait movies I’m watching is likely to actually get a nomination, since they announced the nominees yesterday (No nomination for Tangled? Nothing for The Town but a Best Supporting Actor nod?), so I think I can confidently state now that this movie will indeed have gotten nominated for several awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. As to whether it fully deserves to have been one of the most nominated films (with seven nominations, it was fifth behind The King’s Speech, True Grit, Inception, and The Social Network), I don’t know that I fully agree there.

The film follows Massachusetts boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) as he struggles to improve his career. With him is his brother/trainer Dicky Eklund (a fairly unrecognizable Christian Bale), who helps train him whenever he’s not disappearing to score crack. It becomes clear very quickly that a large part of Micky’s career troubles are coming from his family: his brother is completely unreliable and obsessed with his own personal fame from his glory days years ago (we get to hear him talk of how he once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard a great many times through the film), and his mother Alice, who also manages him, and his five or six sisters, are all as overbearing as a family could possibly be. Wahlberg has surprisingly few lines in the film for a lead, perhaps because his character’s family talks so much that he’s used to never being able to get a word in edgewise.

After a humiliating defeat (his fourth loss in a row) when he’s pressured by his family into accepting a last minute fight against a fighter in a higher weight class, his new girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) manages to convince him that maybe his family doesn’t exactly have his best interests at heart, and he starts to look into other avenues for his management and training. As one could expect, with his new manager and trainer, he finally gets back on a winning streak, much to the consternation of his jilted family.

Let’s get one thing out of the way here: this is absolutely Christian Bale’s show. He is so wild and energetic that he steals every last scene he’s in. The film opens with Wahlberg trying to get some road work done for his main paying job, and Bale just keeps trying to box him and mug for him that he just gives up from weariness, and joins Bale in posing for Bale’s camera crew. Bale has been telling everyone that the HBO crew is there to film Bale’s comeback, though of course it’s very soon uncomfortably obvious what the documentary’s really about (Hint: Bale eventually gets to see it while in prison). Now, I’ve never thought Wahlberg was that exciting an actor to begin with, but he’s not being given a chance paired off with Bale like this. He might as well be one of the audience members that gets dragged onstage during live theater and tries to gamely play along, but mostly just stands there awkwardly smiling while everyone else just acts around him. He’s a fairly internalized actor at the best of times (The Departed notwithstanding); here, he might as well be a wooden prop in half of his scenes.

Which is not to say that he’s outright bad here, he’s just largely a nonentity, almost serving more as one of Hitchcock’s MacGuffins rather than being an actual person. Somewhat more clumsy are the fights, which almost look like old Hulk Hogan matches. In most of the fights we get a good look at, we just see Wahlberg getting pounded on mercilessly until it’s time for him to win, and then he suddenly Hulks up and drops his opponent with a few well-placed hits. Granted, the movie as a whole is a bit over the top, but come on.

Still, these are fairly minor complaints, all told. The movie as a whole is just plain exhilarating and fun, filled with people that make you better appreciate your own, calmer family, and a lot of great performances by everyone not named Mark (since I haven’t really said it earlier, some mention must be made of Amy Adams, who once again shows why she’s one of the brightest stars in Hollywood). If I don’t quite agree that it’s a Best Picture worthy film, nor should David O. Russell have gotten a Best Director nomination instead of Christopher Nolan, it’s still a damn fine movie.

Rating: *** ½

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