‘The Fighter’ thrives on riveting family conflict

Posted Dec. 23, 2010, at 6:11 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:50 p.m.

In theaters

THE FIGHTER, directed by David O. Russell, written by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson, 114 minutes, rated R.

Let’s just address the elephant in the room, feed it some hay and send it on its way.

David O. Russell’s terrific new movie, “The Fighter,” is not another “Rocky.” It’s also not another “The Wrestler” or “Raging Bull.” While it employs underdog elements of each, this is its own movie, with the focus not so much placed on boxing as it is on the more caustic dynamics thriving within one seriously dysfunctional family.

Based on the true story of “Irish” Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a boxer from Lowell, Mass., who has long lived in his brother’s shadow even though years ago Dicky (Christian Bale) traded in his gloves in favor of a crack addiction, “The Fighter” is about relationships. It’s about a family who lives in the heady and hopeful past, when Dicky was in his prime and knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard in the ring, which immediately made him the “pride of Lowell,” even though he didn’t win the fight.

For this sorry, scrappy family, of which there are many — gather the women in a mall parking lot and their enormous hair would fill it — nobody is looking to broken Dicky to get them back on track. Instead, that job is left to Mickey, who was taught by his brother to fight, but like Dicky, has never won a title of his own.

In fact, as the movie begins, he’s a consistent loser in the ring. And how is he to manage that when his manager is his own mother, the power-wielding, smoky Alice (a wonderful Melissa Leo), whose sky-high kitchen sink dye job isn’t her only offense. Wait until she opens her mouth. Or better yet, watch how she showers Dicky with affection when its Mickey who’s putting food on the table.

When into his life comes Charlene (Amy Adams), a bartender who also never realized her true potential, the elements start to shift for Mickey with her support, and also with the support of his father and other men who see in him someone who could be a great fighter in the ring. That is, of course, if they can ditch Alice and Dicky, neither of whom will go quietly.

The plot sounds straight forward, but the familial elements boiling within the movie keep it intense and complex. Also in the film’s favor is whether Dicky really should go away — he has trained Mickey since he was a boy. If he can somehow pull himself together, should he be trusted to coach his brother when Mickey finally lands a title fight at film’s end? Charlene won’t hear of it — and neither will others. But blood is tight in this movie, and while Mickey takes a forceful stand midway through to rid much of his family from his life, the question is whether he can do the same when all of their dreams are just a punch away.

The standout performances don’t come down to Wahlberg or Adams, each of whom are nevertheless excellent — they ground the movie with common sense. The brilliant work comes from Bale, who will be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and Leo, who might enjoy the same in the Supporting Ac-tress category.

Each is so loose and sketchy, just try looking away from them when they’re onscreen. They wreak of authenticity. Dicky isn’t a bad guy — he’s just screwed up on drugs. But Alice? Alice is one corrupt babe who will put herself first in any situation that doesn’t involve her beloved Dicky. And where does that leave Mickey?

“The Fighter” could have gone where so many boxing movies have gone before — straight into the ring, where drama awaits with a right hook and a slow-motion punch to the face. Instead, most of the drama takes place outside of the ring, where lives are on the line, a family is divided and one of the year’s best movies is found.

Grade: A

···

On DVD and Blu-ray

SALT, directed by Phillip Noyce, written by Kurt Wimmer, 99 minutes, rated PG-13.

“Salt” stars Angelina Jolie as Evelyn Salt, a resourceful CIA agent who initially looks petite, blonde and pretty next to Liev Schreiber’s towering Ted Winter, a fellow agent, until her life takes a sudden turn for the worse.

And when that happens, she grows into a rampaging she-monster from hell who can’t be stopped, regardless of what you hurl her way. Not that anything is easy for her here. Salt has her work cut out for her in this movie, and director Phillip Noyce is wise enough to show us the toll it takes on his main character.

The story goes down like this: While in the middle of an interrogation, Salt is called out as a Russian spy by the very Russian defector (Daniel Olbrychski) she’s questioning.

Cue the drama! Now on the run, Salt is forced to morph into a woman whose name also should have been allowed to morph, though into something with a bite. You know, like Patty Pepper Spray. Or Tammy Tabasco. Or Kat Cayenne. Is there nothing that can stop this woman? Nothing that can take her down? Since Jolie has the lead, audiences know the answer.

Noyce based the film on Kurt Wimmer’s script, and what they’ve created is pleasantly absurd, the perfect throwaway that offers steam, heat and a seemingly bottomless taste for action. It’s a fun movie, so much so that you have to question the critics who slammed it because they found it “ridiculous,” “cheesy,” “an action vehicle that moves fast but thinks slow.”

Oh, please. Will there be anyone walking into this movie not expecting to suspend disbelief for the entire movie? That’s the film’s point, that’s what put people into seats, and that’s what Noyce, Jolie and Schreiber deliver with aplomb.

And that they do so with aplomb is what makes the movie so good. Yes, this could have been a train wreck — we’ve all been to action movies that are so dull, they make you want to reach for a noose and call it a life. But “Salt” is sleek and engaging, and the key reason for that is Jolie herself. She brought everything she had to this part, which mostly is physical as she does most of her own stunts. There’s no phoning it in with Jolie. She’s like Madonna that way. What you see is what you get.

Add to the mix Chiwetel Ejiofor in a small yet key role as another of Salt’s colleagues and you have a movie peppered (sorry) with actors who know how to pull off a brisk movie that doesn’t lag.

As for the film’s ending, it’s an absolute set-up for a sequel, and the good news is that there still is a story to tell here. Beyond the fact that Salt’s character is compelling enough to flesh out even further, who doesn’t want to see more of Jolie being the female equivalent of 007? Think that’s a stretch? When you see Jolie leap from bridges onto moving semis, or when you watch her rapidly scale an elevator shaft with no equipment other than her hands and feet, or when you see how she ingeniously gets a cop to drive with the help of a stun gun, there’s truth in that statement.

Jolie knows it, she owns it, and many who see it might want a bit more of it.

Grade: B+

···

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of movie reviews. Smith’s film reviews appear Mondays in Lifestyle, and his video movie previews appear Wednesdays in the Lifestyle section of bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

Recommend this article

SEE COMMENTS →

Similar Articles

More in Living