BY NANCY R. MANDELL
When is a "best actor in a leading role" the "best supporting actor" in the same film? The answer is when Mark Wahlberg takes on the title role in "The Fighter," a remarkable movie based on the career of a champion welterweight boxer named Micky Ward and the family dynamic that got him to the top — particularly his erratic relationship with his half brother, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) whose own boxing career was destroyed by drugs and dissolution.
By the way, because "The Fighter" is so much more than a film about boxing, an aversion to the sport is absolutely no excuse to keep this movie off your must-see list.
Thanks to some mesmerizing performances, a well-crafted script by Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy, confident direction by David O. Russell and — most of all Wahlberg (also a co-producer), "The Fighter" is an unforgettable experience, an offer you can't refuse into the lives of one helluva dysfunctional family, their devotion to each other and to bringing home a championship boxing title.Maybe I'm just a sucker for movies about blue-collar New Englanders, or maybe they just tend to be the focus of some of the most absorbing and award-winning movies in my memory — "Mystic River," "Gone Baby Gone," "Good Will Hunting," even "The Town" and going way back to 1988, "The Accused." It probably doesn't hurt that some of the best actors working today — like Wahlberg and his brother Donny (currently featured on TV's "Bluebloods"), Matt Damon and Ben Affleck can call up their original South Boston accents when they need them. It may also be that Boston's class divisions are about as close as this country gets to the stuffy British model or even the Indian caste system. New York has always been the place that welcomes talent and achievement, whatever its origins, while Boston is still a lot about where you come from, what you sound like when you open your mouth, and who your family is.
Even in Lowell, Mass., the working-class town 30 miles northwest of Boston, that kind of family identity is very important. It doesn't matter that half-brothers Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund — and their seven imposing sisters, a gang of "Furies" — are the product of the flashy and indomitable Alice Eklund Ward's two marriages. What matters — as "Cheers" used to remind us — is that everybody knows your "name." (What also matters right now, as the Golden Globes and upcoming Oscar nominations begin to dominate the news is that it will take more than one hand to count this movie's nominees.)
But first the story, and inseparable from it, the back story of "The Fighter": It seems that growing up in Dorchester (think any middle-class urban neighborhood destroyed by crime, blight and white flight), Wahlberg was fascinated by the career of the real Micky Ward whose "Rocky"-like pursuit of the welterweight title made him a boxing legend. In fact, Wahlberg was reportedly so determined to get this story to the screen, that he began training for the role four years ago, working with professionals to develop the body and the boxing style the part demanded. And believe me, he succeeded!
As the movie opens, HBO is filming (and this is also true) a documentary about Dicky that the miserable shell of a guy thinks will be the story of his boxing comeback. The documentary is really about crack addiction and how it ruined his once promising career. At first, it's hardly clear whether "The Fighter" is about Dicky or Micky. Bale, almost emaciated and looking gaunt and thoroughly dissipated, is totally compelling as he clowns around making feeble efforts to fulfill his role as Micky's trainer. This self-delusion is reinforced by the boys' mother Alice, a best-supporting actress Oscar for Melissa Leo if ever there was one. A chain-smoking, lacquered bleached blonde, Alice is Micky's manager, arranging the minor boxing matches that — win or lose — support the family. Micky, certainly the most passive member of the entire Eklund/Ward tribe, goes along with this arrangement until he ends up brutally beaten in a mismatched fight Alice and Dicky agreed to "for the money" despite clearly recognizing how badly Micky would be hurt. And he is hurt — in both body and spirit. Just about this time, Micky lays eyes on Charlene, a sassy barmaid played with unexpected grit by Amy Adams (if you can believe it, Julie in "Julie and Julia"). The relationship that develops between them forces Micky to see his family for who they are and what they aren't doing for him. He goes from the conviction that he "can't do it" without his brother, to accepting that he can't make it with him.
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The way the family reconciles toward the end of the film would be unbelievable — if it hadn't actually happened — and would certainly fail to suspend our disbelief if it weren't for Wahlberg's sturdy, low-key performance that, as I suggested earlier, supports every other actor in the film. He's simply there, reacting more than acting to truly stunning performances by Bale, Leo, Adams, Jack McGee (as Micky's father) and even Mickey O'Keefe, a Lowell cop and part-time trainer who plays himself. Because these performances are so good, it's hard to evaluate the contribution of director Russell ("Spanking the Monkey," "Flirting with Disaster" and "Three Kings" with Wahlberg). The fight footage is another story. Ward was a boxer who characteristically endured amazing punishment until knocking out his opponents at the last minute with his fierce left hook. Since the matches were shot using the same multi-camera technique that HBO uses for boxing coverage, you are in the ring with Micky every step of the way.
But if you feel a bit dizzy by the time the lights go on in the theater, it's not just from the realism of the boxing. It's from the spectacular punch that this story and this superb cast deliver.
This film opened in wide release Friday (Dec. 17).