A particularly subtle flavor of vulnerability sneaks into Mark Wahlberg’s performance in The Fighter, something we haven’t really seen from him yet onscreen. He’s tough enough as Mickey Ward, a boxer with promise but a lack of killer instinct and an emotional reliance on his brother, telegraphed in the pliant, tentative look in his face. If facial expressions could kill—or win Oscars—Wahlberg’s work in this film would do both.
Of course, it helps that just about every aspect of director David O. (Three Kings, I ♥ Huckabees) Russell’s fine, heartfelt-but-rugged-around-the-edges film is handled with the right kind of care. The Fighter is a winner, even when our protagonist is on the losing end.
Based on a true story and without the usual cardboard characterizations, the film plays out like a naturalistic exploration of family tensions in a working-class clan from Lowell, Massachusetts, where the daughters’ hairdos move in Flock of Seagulls-esque directions, and where a “coulda been a contender” crackhead brother named Dicky (as only the volatile Christian Bale could play it) is steering his kid sibling into worlds of hurt and improper matchups. Enter a voice of reason attached to a lovely frame: Mickey’s girlfriend (Amy Adams). Meanwhile, forces outside the twisted-but-well-meaning family are threatening to undermine familial bonds.
Given the facilitating role of the snaggletoothed family matriarch (Melissa Leo), The Fighter reminds us less of 2008’s ringside jewel The Wrestler and more of another recent film, the remarkable, hard-edged Australian crime-family saga Animal Kingdom. Here, though, the bloody messes and fighting are mostly kept in the “controlled” arena of the boxing ring. Russell, famous for his pugilistic style of direction onset, has worked up an impressive new twist on the boxing film model, suitable for inclusion with such classics as Raging Bull and The Set-Up, both of which, like this film, blend friction by the fistful and disarming moments of tenderness.
In the end (and most all sports films are measured by how they deal with the final bout or game), The Fighter is an organically triumphant story, without that formulaic sports-flick aftertaste.