“THE FIGHTER” PACKS A PUNCH

Whenever anyone mentions great movies about boxers, the films that I immediately think of, in no particular order are all the “Rocky” films (especially the first two), “Cinderella Man,” “Raging Bull,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “When We Were Kings,”  “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” and “The Champ.” Of course there are many, many more films in the genre, but these are some of the very best, and now you can add “The Fighter,” starring Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale, to the list.

Based upon actual events, “The Fighter” chronicles the career of Micky Ward, a native of Lowell, Mass., who overcame severe personal adversity on his way to ultimately winning the WBU Light Welterweight Championship in 2000. Ward’s story is an inspirational one, and this film about him is at once brilliantly acted and superbly shot. As the film opens, we find Micky (Wahlberg) and his half brother, Dicky (Bale), working on a street-paving crew in Lowell during the 1990s. From time he was 12 years old, Micky has been taught the art of boxing by Dicky, who has the distinction of going 10 rounds with Sugar Ray Leonard in 1978 and actually knocking him down once before finally losing the fight in a unanimous decision. Nevertheless, his performance against Leonard made him a local hero and earned him the nickname “The Pride of Lowell.”

But as we join the two brothers at the beginning of the movie, we find that Dicky has descended into the throes of an irrepressible addiction to crack cocaine. He still hopes to make a comeback in the ring, but he spends his days getting high in a local crack house, and now it’s Micky who is trying to excel as a boxer. But between the sporadic help from Dicky and the poor management at in the hands of his domineering mother, Alice (superbly portrayed by Melissa Leo), Micky’s career is going nowhere fast. And after he endures a brutal beating at the hands of a boxer who outweighed him by 20, Micky is literally ready to throw in the towel and forget about boxing. Then an incident occurs that drastically changes things.

One night Dicky becomes embroiled in a fight with the police, and when Micky jumps into the fray, both of them end up in jail. Because the charges against Micky are minor ones, he’s soon released, but Dicky ends up going to prison because of his serious involvement in drugs. Now with Dicky out of the picture, Micky’s girlfriend, Charlene (Amy Adams) convinces him not to give up on boxing, and he goes back into training with a new manager, Sal Lanano (Frank Renzulli), and a new trainer, Mickey O’Keefe (a Lowell police officer who plays himself). This new arrangement infuriates Micky’s possessive mother, who thinks he’s betraying Dicky, but Micky begins to improve and win fights. Everything is going fairly smoothly for Micky, but then Dicky gets out of prison and expects to resume his role as Micky’s main trainer. However, Charlene has made Micky promise that he will have nothing to do with his half-brother. But the problem is that Micky has a shot at the title, and he knows that he can use Dicky’s help for the biggest fight of his life.

“The Fighter” is a terrific film on a number of levels. Of course, it’s first and foremost a boxing film, but it’s also a fascinating study of family dynamics and relationships. In addition to his crackhead brother, Dicky has seven loud-mouthed, obnoxious, and belligerent sisters who despise Charlene and want her out of his life. Of course Micky’s hardnosed mother shares this viewpoint, but Charlene is a bartender, and as such, she’s more than capable of taking care of herself. And she has the chance to show this during a nasty confrontation with Mom and her girls.

Micky also is in a difficult spot because he has idolized Dicky forever, and he realizes that his brother’s knowledge of boxing can really help him. But he made a promise to Charlene and doesn’t want to renege on it. Some of the scenes involving family discussions and arguments are both tragic and comic. Wahlberg turns in a fabulous performance as Micky, and it is evident that he spent many hours at the gym to develop the physique of a boxer, and, once he knew he had the part, he began training even while he was working other films. In the production notes, Wahlberg discussed how he prepared for the role.

“That often meant getting up at four o’clock in the morning, going to the gym for two hours, taking a shower, then going to do another job, all while hitting the mitts in the trailer in between takes. Every day I lived and breathed boxing to become Micky Ward. I knew the kind of expectations Micky had, and mine were just as high. I wanted to be believable in every aspect of the role, including the boxing. I didn’t want to rely on editing or choreography. I wanted to look and be the part for real. I wanted the film to have some of the most realistic boxing ever seen on screen. That was my goal.”

And indeed the fight scenes definitely look real. In fact, they make similar scenes in the “Rocky” films look amateurish by comparison. I often found myself wincing when Micky and his opponents were exchanging punches. In addition to Wahlberg’s fine work in the film, both Bale and Adams are outstanding in their respective parts. Whether he’s flying high on cocaine or stone cold sober, Bale is consistently convincing in eliciting out sympathy. And Adams has a wonderful chemistry with Whalberg. All three of these performers deserve their recent Golden Globe nominations, and the movie also received nominations for best dramatic picture and best director.

“The Fighter” (Give it a score of nine.) deserves a place among the best boxing pictures ever made, and it should receive a number of Academy award nominations. Yo, Rocky! Move over and make room for Micky Ward. His new film is a knockout!

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