Friday, March 04, 2011

The Fighter: A Review

"I started a joke
Which started the whole world crying"
But I didn't see
That the joke was on me
Oh no

I started to cry
Which started a whole world laughing
Oh, if I'd only seen
That the joke was on me"

I Started a Joke (1968) by the Bee Gees

Spoiler free.

Previously, I named Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan as my favourite film of 2010, but that was before I've seen David O. Russell's The Fighter, a biopic about professional boxer Micky Ward which ironically, had Aronofsky attached to direct in the beginning. I have zero interest in sports, much less the sport of boxing, and I lived through life with a blind spot on all things athletic. In fact, I had never even heard of Micky Ward until he was introduced to me in the physical form of Mark Wahlberg in this film. I had no idea how famous he was or whether he was any good as a pugilist. Hell, I had no idea if his story is a tale of triumph or defeat.

In short, I was uniquely positioned to see everything unfold before me untainted by preconceptions or expectations - a mindset which I seldom experience these days in cinemas because I have a habit of obsessively following most films' production from pitch to picture. Another boxing film? Not very high on my to-do list, I'm afraid.

The Fighter poster
That's Christian Bale on the left, y'know, in case you don't recognise the guy.
As it turned out, The Fighter is not really about boxing. It is a drama about a family so dysfunctional that some of its members actually scared me. How true is it to the real story of Micky Ward? I don't know but I felt that that's immaterial. Christian Bale played Dicky Eklund, Micky's washed out, self-deluded to grandiosity crackhead of a brother and by now, you should know that Bale went on to win this year's Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He deserved every inch of that little gold statuette and frankly, I believe he gave one of the most incredible performances I have ever seen in my entire life. I did not have a favourite actor. I do now.

This is really more of a film about Dicky than it is about Micky - or maybe it just seemed that way because Bale stole every scene he was in. He was charismatic and wretched, goofy yet reprehensible; a broken man fighting the shackles of cocaine to do right by his little brother who loves and worships him more than anyone else. After all, Dicky did once upon a time knocked Sugar Ray Leonard down. Allegedly.

I think it's better shown than told, so just look at the frightening transformation he underwent. Yes, this is the Batman himself,

Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg
I knew Bale is an amazing method actor, but it's been so long since the last time he was really good in anything.
Melissa Leo who played Alice, the chain-smoking matriarchal mother and manager of Micky and Dicky, supposedly disappeared into her character as well, but never having seen any of her films, I simply couldn't tell. But I was informed that the Best Supporting Actress Oscar she won was rightfully awarded. Amy Adams (whom I adore) was also nominated for the same award for her performance as Micky's sexy barmaid girlfriend but at least in her case, I could tell she was great. Mark Wahlberg too was convincing in his rather understated protagonist role as Micky who was constantly overshadowed by his older brother, but he was - if you would pardon the boxing vernacular - completely out of his weight class. Don't get me wrong, it's not that he acted poorly at all (he too gave one of his best in a long while), but, but... Christian Freaking Bale!

Boxing is not terribly exciting to watch, moreso for me, but The Fighter proves that so long as you care about the characters involved, you'd wince when they are punched, gasp when they are floored and cheer when they get up to give all they got. Outside or inside the ring. Watching this film was a thoroughly emotional journey for me. I lost count of just how many times I had bona fide tears streaming down my face in a lot of Dicky's scenes. It was lucky that no one saw me - there were only two other blokes in my afternoon 2:50 showing and I'm willing to bet money that they were weeping like housewives too. What happened on screen were all genuine and I shan't believe anyone who says otherwise. Bale made it all real without making it maudlin. It's moments like those he brought to this film that made me fell in love with cinema in the first place. I felt how forcefully he struggled against the worst side of himself. I felt his deepest shames, his anger and most of all, his overwhelming love of and bursting pride in his little kid brother. Oh damn, I felt teary just thinking about those parts. Someone please pass me a tampon, pronto.

On the technical side, the film was partially set within a framing device of a documentary HBO was supposedly making about Dicky's comeback into the world of boxing, a comeback which the whole town of Lowell kept hearing about from he and his mom. Interviews with the brothers bookended the film. The boxing scenes were shot to look like old, grainy, yellowed television footage of contemporary boxing matches using actual equipments from the time - an interesting creative choice. O. Russell even reused the original commentary from Micky Ward's matches and had O'Keefe, a real figure in his life to appear as himself. Then, within the credits, we were treated to a short clip of the real Dicky and Micky, and it's unsettling to realise how closely Bale nailed his speech pattern and mannerisms.

The Fighter is one of those rare films I love which I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to anyone at all. It's not everyday a smartly-scripted, well-directed and phenomenally acted film can possess such a mainstream appeal. What would you do if your family's holding you back from ever achieving your full potential? Where does family love ends and emotional blackmail begins? And what would having a troupe of blonde troglodytes with 80's hair as your sisters do to your psyche growing up?

This is probably going to be one of my all-time favourite films. For the record, I still think Black Swan should have bagged Best Picture, but I am certainly far fonder of The Fighter.

P.S. I'm definitely going to see it again. Anyone up for it?

Jumped aboard the Welsh wagon,
k0k s3n w4i


nicoletta said...

When I read the first paragraph and came across the terms 'Darren Aronofsky' and the movie's title, The Fighter , another film immediately came to mind, and that was The Wrestler , which was directed by Aronofsky and about the life of a professional wrestler. Seen it? I'm not into that kind of stuff either, but it was pretty tragic, in my opinion, and I was about to burst into tears at the end, but didn't because I remembered I wasn't watching alone. The details of The Fighter sound quite different, though.

Ninja said...

Christian Bale is really amazing... He bulked himself up for The Dark Knight... Then, he had to make himself thin for The Fighter... Now, he has to fill his body with muscles again for the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises...

Isn't that will ruin his body?

It must take a lot of determination to get thin like that...

His acting is number one!!

McGarmott said...

Seriously? Coz I saw the trailer to this movie and hated it immediately, seemed like it had no reason to exist at all, just another schmaltzy boxing movie about inspiration and all that stuff with Christian Bale overacting again, and then it kept getting Oscar talk which made me even more annoyed. (Yes, I know I can be very prejudiced. Usually works out for me.)

I guess I'll check it out. But as far as boxing movies go - a genre I couldn't give a damn about - Cinderella Man was the movie that made me tear up ... which almost never happens for any movie.

k0k s3n w4i said...

nicoletta: i saw the wrestler. liked it, but didn't love it. apparently, aronofsky dropped out of the director's seat for the fighter because of the similarities it bore to his previous film (though the similarities are quite superficial, really). here's an interesting trivia: apparently aronofsky wanted executive producer credit for the fighter after watching it. according to david o. russell, aronofsky did that because he loved the film.

Ninja: not to mention that before batman begins, he dropped more than 60 freaking pounds for his role in the machinist. and yes, what he kept doing to his body isn't healthy at all. i won't be surprised to hear about his heart failing some day if he tries to pull another trevor reznik.

McGarmott: well, i can only give you my subjective opinion on how the film made me felt. i remember cinderella man - i saw it at least 5-6 time when it was in theatres back when i had a part time job with gsc (but only because nothing else worth watching was playing at the time). i can't say i liked it very much. for boxing films, cinderella man was as generic as they come. the fighter put far more emphasis on the relationships surrounding the protagonist, and the love between the brothers was really something special. and judging from what i saw of the real dicky, bale wasn't overacting at all. anyhow, i wasn't interested in this film too (that's why i did not follow its production process). my utter lack of any expectations must have helped.

McGarmott said...

Well, I went ahead and saw the film and man, it was exactly what I imagined the film to be when I saw the trailer and I did not like it at all. I found Dicky irritating the way only Christian Bale can play it (arrogant, loud prick) and not much to the story except what felt to me like not-very-engaging family drama ... which is one of those movies I'd relegate to TV movie category (maybe not Hallmark channel but almost there). The movie could've improved for me if Micky had punched his mother in the face (or at least a couple of the sisters) when they attacked Charlene. Plus there were hardly any stakes to the boxing ... there weren't much boxing in the film anyway. To me, nothing felt remarkable about the direction, the editing, the cinematography, the sound, music, etc. The acting wasn't bad but there were only two characters to root for; with Melissa Leo winning, I'd say Hailee Steinfeld was robbed.

Chalk it to different preferences, but I couldn't see at all why you considered this one of your favourite films of all time.

If I were to compare this to Cinderella Man, I'd say Cinderella Man was robbed, coz to me Russell Crowe displayed more affecting acting, Renee Zellweger made me tear up, Paul Giamatti was awesome (and was in fact nominated), the editing was shit-brilliant, and combined with the cinematographic choices and the very deliberate sound mixing really sold the punches and made the boxing matches tense like hell, and Thomas Newman's melancholic score still makes me feel the movie 5 years on (I still listen to certain tracks of the score at least once a month on my iPod), and the stakes were all properly set-up and then turned up match by match and I swear the suspense was almost killing me in the final match (sweaty palms, that sort of thing). It was Ron Howard's best film of the last decade in my opinion, and it bombed at the box office and garnered almost no attention at the awards. So maybe it really is just me.

Rather similarly, I was rooting for The Queen a few years ago and that one didn't get anything except one Oscar, and this year what I considered a lesser film in the same genre took home the Best Picture Oscar instead. Sigh.

k0k s3n w4i said...

McGarmott: like i said in my review, "As it turned out, The Fighter is not really about boxing." i was sold on the relationship between the brothers and i didn't see dicky as an "arrogant, loud prick". i saw him as a tragic figure, deluded by cocaine and his mother - but he genuinely love his little brother. he really would do anything for micky. he tried to keep his mother from finding out about his addiction because he really didn't want to hurt her. and he really does love his kid. i honestly felt for his struggle to do right by his family. i never hated dicky. not once. he is a victim through and through. when he fought to hold back tears at the interview scene at the end because of how proud he is of micky, i was pretty much won over for good. i agree the boxing scenes in the fighter aren't the greatest, but they aren't the reasons why i like this movie so much. sorry, for getting you to see it. cinderella man was very, very well crafted - but it's ultimately a very generic sports drama. personal opinion, of course.

Jen said...

What, no spoilers? Is this the start of a whole new direction for you in 2011?

I've been wanting to catch this. Come on down to KL! I could use a movie buddy.

k0k s3n w4i said...

Jen: too late. i've already seen it a second time. but i might come down kl sometime this week to see true grit which the malaccan gsc refused to show. will give you a ring as soon as my plans are solid :)