In an otherwise anodyne academy awards, it was left to The Fighter’s stars to jolt us out of lethargy, via Melissa Leo’s F-bomb and Christian bale forgetting his wife’s name.
High on Oscar glory – or still punch-drunk from the 32-day shoot in Lowell, Massachusetts?
On paper, The Fighter looked as quaint as The King’s Speech; another tired boxing flick about an underdog overcoming adversity. Instead, David O. Russell’s film fizzes with the same independent energy as Inception, Black Swan or The Social Network.
While not exactly original, Russell deploys clichés as feints and dodges, training his no-hoper into a nimble challenger.
The difference from other boxing movies? Lowell, the boisterous community that’s home to welterweight scrapper ‘Irish’ Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his half-brother Dicky Edlund (Bale), the one-time contender turned crack addict who is being filmed for a documentary exposé.
Most directors would have seen only an inner-city downer, but Russell hit the streets, involved the real-life protagonists, and found his authenticity in Lowell’s coarse humour.
Forget Rocky Balboa. Ward’s problem is that everybody is in his corner: mother, brother, sisters, girlfriend. No stranger to family dysfunction from his indie days, Russell choreographs their squabbling as slapstick.
A deleted scene confirms the value of Russell’s loose aesthetic. Originally, Micky’s seven sisters were introduced via freeze-frames and captions, but the funnier final cut presents them as life finds them: with bad hair and bad manners.
With the film bookended by Dicky’s documentary and Micky’s title fight, both available online (if sadly absent in the extras), Russell doesn’t try to compete but to emulate. After all, he and Bale are no strangers to their foibles becoming scandals.
But it’s rare to find Bale’s immersion invested in someone less than serious. He turns Dicky into Hollywood’s liveliest fuck-up in years.
Add in Leo’s formidable Ma Alice, and a cast-against-type Amy Adams as ward’s squeeze Charlene, and Wahlberg is practically a passenger in his own movie. Yet his selfless performance equals Bale’s in commitment – he trained for four years in anticipation of the shoot.
And it was Wahlberg, as producer, who masterminded using an actual HBO crew to shoot the boxing scenes. It’s a fighter’s strategy, showcasing Wahlberg’s prowess with clarity, matching the speed and economy of Russell’s direction.
It took HBO three days that a conventional crew insisted needed 20. “What do you need 20 days for, to jerk each other off?” Wahlberg laughs on the accompanying doc.
Sure, he was overlooked by Oscar, but there’s little doubt where Bale and Leo’s irreverent approach came from.
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