Mark Wahlberg has often said that his dream role is a professional boxer. He certainly seems made for it: muscular, dopey-faced, always carrying a pent-up rage, a sense that he’s out of his depth (as an actor) but ready to sock anyone who calls him on it. The Fighter, then, would seem to be his dream come true, a flagrant attempt to place himself — or rather Micky Ward, the real-life Lowell, MA fighter he portrays — in the canon of classic movie boxers, right up alongside Rocky. While he’s about as good an actor as Stallone was in the mid-70s, The Fighter has an edge over Rocky in that Wahlberg’s probably smarter. Judging by his track record of working with directors whose style elevates his game, he’s at least smart enough to recognize his own limitations, not to mention those of the genre he wants to work in.
The struggling boxer is not only one of the most common tricks in the sports movie book, but also the most tired. From Wallace Beery and Robert Ryan to Stallone and DeNiro to Woody Harrelson, Antonio Banderas, Ving Rhames, and Wesley Snipes, boxing movies have never tired of rehashing themselves (neither, to be fair, have sports films in general). Which only makes it harder for a smart guy like Wahlberg to make his dream look like anything new. In outline, there’s barely a thing to distinguish The Fighter from Rocky; Wahlberg’s challenge is to find something punchy to shake up the old story of the scrappy guy from the bad neighborhood rising to the challenge of his unlikely shot at the title.
This is where he shows where his talent really lies. As one of The Fighter’s producers, Wahlberg had a large hand in choosing the director to put the movie together. He chose David O. Russell, the famously temperamental stylist who cast Wahlberg in two of his four previous films. Although he is himself no stranger to fist fights, Russell is best known for his skill with comedy. His infrequent, resolutely good repertoire includes an ode to Howard Hawks screwball (1996’s Flirting with Disaster), a manically over-the-top war movie (1999’s Three Kings), and an existential comedy (2004’s I Heart Huckabees) that benefits from containing more of the latter than the former.
In six years, Russell hasn’t lost his talent. He distinguishes The Fighter from hundreds of other boxing movies by charging it with a sense of humor — not only with jokes, but with an absurd, elastic, boundlessly energetic sense of the scenes’ shape. The script is a bit better than skeptics of the boxing film will have expected; what Russell does is stretch its drama into long, lively scenes wherein the sense of urgency and mania is huge. Christian Bale’s ex-boxer, the fallen hero brother to Wahlberg, is a wiry trainwreck of a faded glory drug addict. The way Russell structures his most self-destructive scene — which involves Bale impersonating a police officer, fleeing real police on foot across town, and getting embroiled in a desperate punch out with a bouncer and an increasing number of burly cops — gives it a sweaty, drawn-out, lunatic momentum that other directors, not as attuned to the crazed hilarity of it, would have cut-up and missed. Similarly, Russell’s willingness to let the family drama overtake the boxing for large chunks of time is the mark of a director who understands that rhythm and balance, as much as excess, are the keys to a successful boxing movie, same as they are to the sport itself.
None of which is to say The Fighter is a great film. Wahlberg is nearly a non-entity, drifting through the center of his baby at the whim of the stronger personalities around him — that is, the director and the uniformly gifted supporting cast. He stacked his deck by hiring Russell to liven up his tried-and-true story, but since he cast himself as the straight man amidst a chaos of drugs and emotions, Russell’s talents can’t do much for him. Wahlberg playing for drama inevitably falls back on the puppy-faced shyness of Eddie Adams, which leaves real actors like Bale, Melissa Leo, and Amy Adams to clean up in his absence. Together with Russell’s style, they make the movie worth watching, but as far as its intention — to move people with the Micky Ward story, presumably — it falls flat just as often as Wahlberg’s on screen. The Fighter is, like Ward, a rough-edged success, but only because its handlers have clearly seen the deficiencies they’re working with and figured out the cleanest way around them.