Inspirational sports sagas starring Marky Mark are not how David O. Russell (Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees) ought to be spending his time. But if The Fighter is penance for being a notorious on-set prick while another project, the already-filmed Nailed, hangs in limbo, the filmmaker doesn’t treat it that way. The tale of Lowell, Mass. welterweight champ Micky Ward comes to us not in the thumb-twiddling straight-line narrative of an Invincible, but as the messiness of life brought to us by an exceptionally messy filmmaker.
In part because Ward’s story isn’t, in Aristotlean terms, all that compelling—all he needs to overcome is insecurity and pushy family members—it’s more tempting to read The Fighter as an Oscar tag-team bout.
In one corner stand the more obvious AMPAS-feted turns: Christian Bale, who once again drastically changed his body size to play Micky’s champ-turned-crackhead brother Dickie; and Melissa Leo as their tyrannical mother-manager. Both are showoffs in showoff roles—which will likely be rewarded by the Academy.
If you’re less impressed by bombast, you’ll probably be rooting for the other pair’s more restrained underdogs. In that corner, we’ve got Wahlberg and Amy Adams. Wahlberg, who tends to be dull when doing anything but broad comedy (as in Huckabees), manages subtlety without slipping into a zombie state; he’s constantly surprising us with sudden energy. And Adams’ transformation into a trashy, obscene sparkplug is all the more admirable for her doing it without overhauling her tiny voice.
Working from a byzantine script, which holds the boxing montages until after the hour mark, Russell directs with appropriate recklessness. Sometimes he’s an ideal fit; other times he abuses cutesy, on-the-nose music cues—“Back in the Saddle” during Micky’s return to fighting, for example, or “Good Times, Bad Times” over a montage juxtaposing one brother having a good time, the other having a bad time.
Tones mix but frequently lean towards comic, and spill over in a centerpiece involving an angry visit from Leo and her many, many daughters—a scene where Russell’s gift for barely organized chaos shines through. True, The Fighter doesn’t add up to much, but as it unfolds it’s a much-welcome trainwreck in a paint-by-numbers genre.