One of the great junior welterweight fighters in recent years, “Irish” Micky Ward has gained great fame for his trilogy of fights against Arturo Gatti from 2002-2003 that were voted by Ring magazine as the fight of the year 2 years in a row. Though Ward is currently retired, he remains one of the great fighters of the sport as his story has been optioned to become a film. While it took several years and many directors attached including Darren Aronofsky, production for the film was hard as Mark Wahlberg took on the role as Micky Ward. With Aronofsky dropping out of the project and becoming the executive producer, the controversial David O. Russell finally helmed the project that is simply known as The Fighter.
Directed by David O. Russell with a screenplay by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson along with story credit by Tamasy, Johnson, and Keith Dorrington. The Fighter tells the story of Micky Ward’s rise to the ring along with relationship with his troubled older half-brother Dicky Eklund. While it’s a boxing film of sorts, the film is also a family drama that revolves around Dicky’s own drug issues as well as his past a professional welterweight champion whose life fell apart following a fight with Sugar Ray Leonard. With Wahlberg as Micky Ward and Christian Bale as Dicky Eklund, the film also stars Amy Adams, Jack McGee, Frank Renzulli, and Melissa Leo. The Fighter is a good, solid, though clichéd film from David O. Russell.
It’s 1993 as a film crew for HBO sports documentary is making a film about Dicky Eklund. Dickie’s claim to fame was knocking out Sugar Ray Leonard at a fight back in 1978 as he is now a trainer for his younger brother Micky. With their mother Alice (Melissa Leo) as Micky’s manager with hopes for a comeback for Dicky. Though the brothers surround themselves with seven sisters and Micky’s father George (Jack McGee), the family hope for good things to come for the dysfunctional family. Even as Dicky is dealing with a dependency for crack which makes him late for training sessions along with an upcoming match against an opponent in Atlantic City. The fight in Atlantic City becomes a disaster when Micky’s original opponent fell ill as he was forced to fight another individual 20-pounds over Micky’s weight class.
Humiliated by the loss, Micky thinks about giving up boxing as he finds some comfort in his new girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) who suggests about making some changes. Considering an offer to train in Las Vegas for a year from a rich, viable promoter, Micky reluctantly says no when Dicky makes a claim to raise the money for the year-round training. Unfortunately, Dicky’s run-in with the law gets Dicky arrested while Micky tries to intervene where an officer breaks his right hand. After Dicky’s arrest as he is sent to jail, George Ward along with trainer/police officer Mickey O’Keefe decide to make some changes once Micky’s hand heals. Turning to a local promoter in Sal LoNano (Frank Renzulli), Micky fires Alice as he also leaves Dicky behind following the HBO documentary which was about Dicky‘s crack addiction rather than his comeback attempt.
With Micky finally getting in some fights and winning, it is clear that he is gaining momentum while Dicky struggles with drug withdrawal in prison. Yet, an upcoming fight with top light welterweight contender Alfonso Sanchez has Micky worried. After visiting Dicky in prison, Dicky makes some suggestions about what to do with the fight. Though Micky didn’t want to listen, he finally realizes that Dicky is right as he was able to defeat Sanchez. With plans to face Shea Neary for the WBU Light Welterweight title in London and Dickie out of jail. Micky realizes that, despite the dysfunctions of his mother and brother, he needs them as well as the people who helped him rise to this moment. Even as Dicky tries to make amends for all that he has done.
The film is a mixture of not just a boxing film but also a family drama. At the heart of the film is the loving but often troubled relationship between half-brothers Dicky Eklund and Micky Ward. While there’s a lot of love between the brothers as Micky sort of looks up to Dicky for his accomplishments as a boxer. The problem is that Micky tries to deal with Dicky’s own troubles as well as his own dysfunctional family. Dicky is a selfish character who squanders his chances for a comeback by relying on his addiction to crack and rides Micky’s coattails as he tries to use Micky’s rise as a fighter for his own reasons.
When he meets Charlene, an educated but street-wise bartender, she becomes the escape Micky needed from his family as his sisters refer to her as a skank. Even in a scene where there’s a confrontation between Charlene against Alice and Micky’s sisters that turn violent. While it’s shocking, it’s also comical because it’s seen from the viewpoint from a member of the family. While the screenplay does create some great characteristics for Micky Ward, Dickie Eklund, and Charlene along with a few supporting characters. Not everything is great.
The character of Alice Ward isn’t as complex or as fully-realized as the other main characters. Though she does have moments, particularly in the film’s second half where she is able to be more engaging and fully-realized. At times, she comes off a cliché not just in look but also in the way she handles things. Whether it’s in Russell’s direction or the script, it’s a character that doesn’t entirely work. Other characters that don’t really work either are the sisters of Micky and Dicky that are just loud, obnoxious, and really becomes a distraction whenever they appear in the film for a bulk of the first half.
Another problem with the screenplay is the idea of when the fights take places. While the film chronicles from the 1993 shoot of Dicky’s documentary to Micky’s fight with Shea Neary in 2000. There isn’t any idea of when some of these events take place along with the fights. For viewers who don’t know much about Ward’s career, it becomes confusing at some places. Even as some of the dramatic moments of the film about Micky’s family seems a little exaggerated to the point where it becomes a bit ridiculous.
While the screenplay had some flaws, director David O. Russell was able to create a film that is compelling and exciting to watch. While his approach to many of the film’s dramatic moments is mostly straightforward. He does create some excellent stylistic choices with the use of steadicam shots for some of the film’s opening scenes where Dicky takes a film crew around the town of Lowell, the real hometown of Dicky Eklund and Micky Ward. He also uses a lot of super 8 footage for flashback scenes about Micky and Dickie’s relationship along with video for Dicky’s documentary. The fight scenes are also wonderfully shot with elements of stylistic shot to convey the rhythm and emotion of the fight. Even as Russell brings comedy to the film which included a fight between Charlene and Micky’s sisters. Despite some flaws in the script and some clichés with the genre of boxing films, David O. Russell creates a solid and entertaining film.
Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema does some excellent work with the film‘s cinematography in creating a gritty, realistic look to the scenes in Lowell, Massachusetts. Even in the fights where the camera is fast and playing to the atmosphere of the fight as van Hoytema’s work is worth noting. Editor Pamela Martin does a spectacular job with the editing by creating a mostly leisured pace for the film while the boxing and more intense dramatic scenes have a wonderful rhythm.
Production designer Judy Becker, along with set decorator Gene Serdena and art director Laura Ballinger, does a fantastic job with the look for the homes of George and Alice Ward in its working-class feel along with the apartments that Micky and Charlene lives in. Even the gym that Micky trains has an old-school, gritty blue-collar look that gives authenticity to the film. Costume designer Mark Bridges also does a very good job with the film‘s blue-collar, New England look while giving Melissa Leo some cheesy clothing that most middle-aged women wear to try and look young in. Sound editor Odin Benitez does a nice job with the film‘s sound, even in creating layers for some of the boxing scenes when Micky hears Dicky‘s voice in a couple of fights.
The film’s music features a somber, ambient-guitar driven score by Michael Brook that revolves around the dramatic tone of the film. Yet, most of the film’s soundtrack consists of bar staples from the 1970s and 1980s from acts like Aerosmith, Whitesnake, Til’ Tuesday, Hall & Oates, Atlanta Rhythm Section, and Led Zeppelin in a great sequence where Dicky tries to raise money in the most dumb way he can think of.
Casting by Sheila Jaffe does a very good job with the casting as it features some good yet small roles from Miguel Espino as Alfonso Sanchez, Anthony Molinari as Sean Neary, Joshua Dugay as the young Dicky Eklund, Salvatore Santone as the young Micky, Chanty Sok as Dicky’s crackhead girlfriend, Jackson Nicholl as Dicky’s young son, Alison Folland as Micky’s ex-wife, Sean Patrick Doherty as Micky’s ex-wife husband, and Caitlin Dwyer as Micky’s daughter Kasie. The film also features cameos from Michael Buffer and Sugar Ray Leonard along with the real Dicky Eklund and Micky Ward at the end of the film.
For the roles of Micky’s sisters, there’s Kate O’Brien, Dendrie Taylor, Jill Quigg, Erica McDermot, Bianca Hunter, Melissa McMeekin, and Jenna Lamia as they’re all sporting big teased hair with loud, obnoxious voices as they really do more of a disservice to the film as their performance are just annoying to watch. Mickey O’Keefe is phenomenal in a great supporting role as himself. He really stands out as the guy who always makes sure Micky Ward does well by being a trainer and a cop who keeps the peace. Frank Renzulli is very good as Sal LoNano, the local promoter who helps break Micky into the fighting circuit and get attention. Jack McGee is also very good as Micky’s father George who takes over Micky’s boxing business from his wife while being the moral support Micky needed. Melissa Leo is okay as Alice Ward when she’s not making a fool of herself though she comes off at times to be a trashy, over-the-top woman that can be grating at times.
Amy Adams is superb as Charlene, a no-holds-barred woman who doesn’t bullshit and can help Micky be himself and try to help his boxing career. It’s definitely a role that doesn’t have Adams play cute or be quirky. Instead, she’s tough as nails while not letting anyone push her around as she proves that she can kick some ass. It’s definitely Adams at her finest. Mark Wahlberg gives one of his best performances as Micky Ward by showing more of his sensitive side while proving he’s not a pushover either. Wahlberg has the physicality to be a tough guy while he also has the range to be someone that is overlooked and try to accept it. It’s definitely a role that indicates that when he can get a meaty part like this, he can bring his A game.
Finally, there’s Christian Bale in what is definitely a remarkable performance as Dicky Eklund. Though it’s a supporting role, Bale definitely exudes all of the recklessness and charisma while being the guy who is selfish in wanting the spotlight. Bale also brings a sense of humor while his appearance is truly horrifying as he lost lots of weight for the role that will remind audiences of his work in The Machinist. While it may not be on the same level as The Machinist or some of his other work. It is at least a better performance than the one he had given in his previous films like Public Enemies and Terminator: Salvation while he also has some great chemistry with Mark Wahlberg.
While it may not live up to some of the great boxing films of the past, The Fighter is still a solid yet entertaining film from David O. Russell. Featuring some great performances from Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, and Amy Adams. It’s a film where it gives boxing fans something while getting a chance to see some great acting as well as an inspirational story. Though fans of David O. Russell might see this as his weakest film to date, it is still a very good film that could’ve been much worse or more by the book in the hands of a less talented director. In the end, The Fighter is a very good boxing-drama film from David O. Russell that is a slight cut above from other typical boxing films.
David O. Russell Films: Spanking the Monkey - Flirting with Disaster - Three Kings - I Heart Huckabees - Silver Linings Playbook - American Hustle - Accidental Love - Joy (2015 film) - (The Auteurs #70: David O. Russell)
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