There are a couple different ways this blog might look at "The Fighter," the movie version of the story of real-life boxer Micky Ward: from the perspective of a movie fan, or as a boxing writer. Let's try both.
From the vantage point of a movie fan, it's an excellent film, as good as a "commercial," Oscar-bait offering gets. It is by turns moving, profound and hilarious, and the volume of laughter it produces is especially surprising considering it's more a drama than anything else. Everything you've heard about Christian Bale's riveting performance — the kind of things we all suspected were the case since the trailer where we first saw him transformed into Ward's crack-addicted brother Dickie Ecklund — are true.
At my screening, "The Fighter" moved the audience: They sat on the edge of their seats during the fight scenes and genuinely and enthusiastically clapped at the moments when Micky won. Yet as plots go, its spine is fairly boiler-plate, the "Rocky" tale (roughly) done anew, even if its source material is the life of an actual person. The movie is, instead, mostly about the relationships between the characters, about people trying to make it all work for one another and sometimes failing, despite love and the best of intentions. That heart of the film, and the quality acting, more than make up for the shortcomings of "The Fighter."
From the vantage point of a boxing fan, it is also an excellent film. The fight scenes are well-choreographed, the story largely true to the life of Ward as told in the well-done biography "Irish Thunder." But I can't help but be torn about the movie this could have been instead, given the rich source material of Ward's career. There will be a paragraph I mark as containing spoilers in that regard, so skip over that paragraph if you're not familiar with Ward or the film's plot and outcome. But do make sure you read to the end, where I'll offer the perspective of a boxing writer to non-boxing fans about the must-see fights of Ward's career.
As A Movie Fan…
The basics of "The Fighter," sans spoilers, are thus: Ward (played by Mark Wahlberg in an understated performance befitting Ward's actual personality) is a talented fighter who lives in Lowell, Mass., a working class town where greatness — at least, the definition of greatness in the mythical American Dream — is in short supply. The last person to come close, chronologically, was Ward's brother Dickie. Rival factions soon emerge in Ward's camp. His charismatic but troubled brother and co-trainer takes one side with his overbearing mother and sisters, while his father, co-trainer and love interest take the other. Matched poorly early, Ward loses and risks becoming a stepping stone. Together, separately, this rocky crew aim toward a title shot for Ward, who, as the commercials for the movie highlight, has to deal with everyone around him fighting each other while he tries to be the one who's supposed to do the professional scrapping.
Every second the camera is on Bale, he owns the film. Part of it is his character. I've known some guys like Ecklund, at least as he's played in the movie. They are bad news, and you know this, but they are such lovable rogues you forgive their trespasses. Ecklund rides the line hard. Bale makes him irresistible. He takes on Ecklund's personality traits, like his vocal rhythms and a kind of drunken, friendly swagger that possesses him even when he isn't high. When you see him suffer, it hurts you nearly as much as it hurts his family on-screen, and the contrast between popular hero and sniveling, selfish addict contains many of the film's best — and even some of the funniest — moments.
In fact, the movie contains many fine performances, including Amy Adams as love interest Charlene, Melissa Leo as mother Alice and co-trainer Mickey O'Keefe as himself. Director David O. Russell has taken knocks for the film's pace, and it is admittedly herky-jerky in places. But he does some powerful work, too. Late in the film (this is only mildly spoil-y, but you might want to skip to the end of this graf), as Ecklund and Ward walk to the ring together, the boos of the crowd threaten to drown the pair in noise, except they can't stop singing Whitesnake's "Here I Go Again" to each other, as though they are the only two people in the world, and they're the only ones hearing Ward's ring walk music together. I never anticipated a profound movie moment involving Whitesnake, but Russell pulls it off.
Despite that trick, by far the biggest flaw in the movie, and admittedly this is a pet peeve of mine, is the poor use of music. Particularly, one song: "How You Like Me Now," by The Heavy. It is laced throughout the movie, alas, and played repeatedly at critical moments. This tune — used in every commercial and movie of 2010, so far as I can tell — was stale by halftime at the Super Bowl, and that was in February. It couldn't have been more annoying if the centerpiece of the soundtrack instead was "The Song That Never Ends."
Again, without giving anything away, I'll leave it to the individual viewer to ascertain whether they like the nominal ending. I'll touch on this somewhat in the next section. But the post-script works just great, whether you're the kind of person who prefers expected happy endings or something more nuanced.
Ultimately, this will go down as one of the best movies of 2010, regardless of what Oscar decrees, and that little golden man will have an awfully tough time finding a better Supporting Actor in particular.
…As A Boxing Writer
Too many boxing movies feature terrible fight scenes, excluding some of the subtleties of boxing in favor of two fools standing there with their hands down punching each other full force. Fortunately, the script of "The Fighter" sees fit to educate the laymen early on about what a body punch is and why it matters, and it does so smoothly. It could hardly be a Ward movie, after all, without body punching. And the fight scenes are better for making the viewer understand what a body punch can do to a man.
The gist of the plot is basically true, including even the bit where Ward gets his hand smashed by the coppers, although the coppers would probably deny that was the big idea. The plot plays around with the timing of who's training Ward when, but it does so in a way that's the kind of creative license I'm willing to overlook. If you're wanting to make a point about Ward and his two trainers, for instance, it does no good to bring in confusing elements like O'Keefe not being with Ward at all for the Alfonso Sanchez fight, and never mind that his brother had no role in that fight whatsoever, either. It advances the plot and the central relationship dynamic to put him there.
The most galling creative license, however, is making the Shea Neary fight for the welterweight championship of the world. I'm of the mind that there's only one champion in any division, which is why I pay attention only to the lineal Ring championship belts. But even if you're the kind of person who thinks the four major title sanctioning bodies serve a valuable purpose, you have to almost laugh at the idea that Ward vs. Neary for a WBU belt is anything like a fight for "the" title. In this regard, the movie does damage to the casual fan's understanding of the sport. I will be on pins and needles for a few weeks, fearing that someone will want to talk to me about boxing who's just seen "The Fighter" and feels compelled to ask me, "So, any fights for the WBU belt coming up this weekend?"
BEGIN SPOILER PARAGRAPH
What makes it hard for me to live with the happy ending is that, as it pertains to Ecklund, it isn't true, and as it pertains to Ward, there's a better ending right there to be had. You don't have to gin up some win in some title fight to make Ward's career matter. Indeed, what made Ward's career matter is that it didn't matter whether he won or lost. What made it matter is that he always gave it his all, that he always made drama, that even in losses he was beloved. And leaving out the Arturo Gatti trilogy — man, that's a bummer. Dramatically, how interesting is it that Ward and Gatti became friends through those fights? Maybe that's one too many relationships for a movie of this size to address. Maybe the "ennobling loss" ending has been done before; but the "underdog wins title" ending has been done a lot more, and the former is more true to Ward than the latter. Because really, this movie could have been a touching tragedy as much as it could be a success story, given how much it's about Ecklund. According to "Irish Thunder," Ecklund was back on crack by 2005, not seemingly A-OK as he is at movie's end. Just two years ago, Ecklund was arrested for domestic assault and attempted murder. Maybe this movie, for me, would be about the way one person is lifted in loss — Ward, in his defeats by Gatti — and the other finds a way to give away the world — Ecklund, in his gifted boxer turned addict/recovered addict/addict story.
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One of the things I hope this movie does is encourage everyone who's not a big boxing fan to go out and watch Ward fights. I always say boxing fans are created by a couple methods: 1. an affiliation/interest in a fighter and his story or 2. witnessing a truly great fight, regardless of which two men are doing it. Ward, by virtue of the movie, should have your attention now as a story, but since he's no longer around, you can't exactly tune into his fights. What Ward fights can do is make you understand how good boxing can be.
So, if you get a chance, make sure you check out his classic battles with Arturo Gatti — mentioned in the film — and his war with Emanuel Augustus, then known as Emanuel Burton. For three consecutive years from 2001 to 2003, Ward's fights with Augustus and Ward were deemed the best fight of the year by Ring magazine. (Gatti-Ward II is a bit slower than Gatti-Ward I, Gatti-Ward III and Ward-Augustus, but still worth viewing just to give you a sense of the story line.)
I'll even get you started. Gatti-Ward I-III can be tricky at times to track down in their entirety on YouTube, but maybe with the release of "The Fighter," HBO can see the value in re-airing all three bouts the same way they did after Gatti's death in 2009. Until then, here's Ward-Augustus.