By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
The Fighter is a boxing movie swinging in too many directions at once, as if someone sneaked a third clubber into the ring. All the emotional punches land solidly, to occasionally devastating effect, but at the conclusion you're not sure which competing cliche wins.
David O. Russell's down and dirty drama is a true-life Rocky at its roots, based on the career of Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a scrappy boxer whose improbable career mirrors those found in less ambitious and usually fictional fight flicks. In another true twist, Micky's trainer and half-brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) is a crack addict, with all the recriminations and withdrawal pangs the situation demands.
Micky has a monkey on his own back — seven of them, in fact, counting his shrewish mother/manager, Alice (Melissa Leo), and six ugly stepsisters braying a crude Greek chorus of disapproval for Micky's new girl, Charlene (Amy Adams). She might steal away their meal ticket. When that stuff demands attention, it's like those three boxers in the ring each grew an extra arm.
The most compelling of these subtexts is Dicky's situation since it provides Bale with another reason for character immersion bordering on psychosis. No other actor so consistently places himself in such physical distress with drastic weight loss (The Machinist, Rescue Dawn) or causes worry for his mental stability when plumbing for the perfect levels of despair.
Bale's portrayal of mean streets addiction, all jitters and lying jags, dwarfs everything in the movie around him. It almost feels overbaked, until the end credits show the real Dicky, now rehabilitated but still hyperactive.
Bale makes him an antisocial animal, scrounging for his next high and generally disappointing everyone around him. The actor also mines enormous sympathy for Dicky, who honestly believes the HBO crew trailing him is taping a tribute to his and Micky's careers. It's actually an expose on crack addiction. Each empty vow and inflated memory Dicky offers the camera is another clue to how far he has fallen.
Eventually, Dicky gets shoved aside as Micky's big fight approaches and things boil over with Alice and Charlene. The Fighter suddenly remembers that every successful boxing movie must end in the ring, not rehab or family counseling.
There are other things to like about The Fighter. Wahlberg is obviously invested in his role after six years of training, resulting in some of the most convincing boxing sequences I've seen. He's still an actor who doesn't surprise with performance choices, but he's solid. Leo plays her blue collar Lady Macbeth beyond the hilt, but the movie needs that kind of punch. Adams displays a rougher edge that's welcome.
Squeezing all these qualities and possibilities into two hours ends up cheating them. Russell could probably remake this movie at least twice from another character's perspective. That's how much material feels left out in trying to include too much. Truth isn't always stranger than fiction, I guess. But piling enough conventional truths into one movie keeps it interesting.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at tampabay.com/blogs/movies.