The Fighter is a boxing movie, but it's also a film about a family, and what a family Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) had to contend with as he made an unlikely tilt at the world championship. His mother, the chain-smoking, tough-talking Alice (played by Melissa Leo), acts as his manager, but she has been mismanaging his career for years, exploiting his talents and lining up no-good fights that take his career nowhere. Micky is also surrounded by a terrifying brood of sisters – seven of them, in fact – all of whom share the same wild hair and wilder temper, and all ready to jump at their mother's command. As we watch Wahlberg we get the sense that Micky has spent his entire life acquiescing to their wishes, giving in to his sense of family loyalty and the desire for a quiet life, while watching his career and potential slowly drain away.
Micky's brother is a troubled soul too. In 1978, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) took Sugar Ray Leonard to the distance, losing on a points decision, in a performance that secured his lifetime status as a local hero in his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts. When we meet Dicky, in 1993, he is a scarily gaunt crack addict, who spends his days holed up in a crack den and launches himself out of the window when his mother comes to find him. Dicky is supposed to be Micky's trainer, but he's not much use to the frustrated boxer when he turns up at the gym spaced-out, or forgets to turn up at all.
So, Micky's fight lies not only in the ring but in his home, with him having to stand up to his overbearing family and cut the ties that are holding him back. The Fighter has all of the hallmarks of a fine underdog-makes-good boxing story, but it never quite finds a sense of focus, and as enjoyable as the film is to watch, it failed to fully involve me in Micky's journey from nobody to contender. With such talent in front of the camera, and with David O. Russell behind it, perhaps I was simply expecting more from The Fighter, expecting it to break with the traditions of the true-life boxing movie and energise old clichés with a fresh vigour. Russell is responsible for a couple of impressive moments – the opening reveal of his characters being a particularly dazzling shot – but for the most part his direction has been dialled down significantly from the lively eccentricity of Three Kings and I ♥ Huckabees. He handles the film's boxing sequences well enough, skilfully incorporating TV footage of Micky's bouts into the drama, but there's very little here that doesn't feel well-worn and familiar.
Perhaps Russell's biggest achievement as director on this film can been seen in the way he keeps the picture moving and keeps it feeling cohesive, while simultaneously indulging performances that range from gritty and sullen to borderline cartoonish. Leo and Bale deliver the kind of high-wire turns that might have unbalanced the movie, but both are good enough to invest their roles with a sense of soul and stop them from veering into caricature. In particular, Bale is remarkable, with the extraordinary nature of his performance extending far beyond his now-customary dedication to the physical requirements of his role. It's a showy piece of work, sure, but Bale is magnetic, with his jabbering, wired, bug-eyed display feeling consistent and lived-in rather than a self-conscious piece of gimmickry. In her own, quieter way, Amy Adams gives something of a revelatory performance too, with her strong portrayal of Charlene – the woman Micky falls in love with, and the woman who supports him in his battles with his clan – allowing her to display a tougher edge to her persona, and she clearly relishes the opportunity.
Sadly, the problem is Wahlberg. This film has been a passion project for the actor, one he has been trying to get off the ground for years, but where's the passion in his performance? Of course, it's understandable and even crucial that Wahlberg should provide The Fighter with a calm centre capable of providing balance and contrast with his attention-grabbing co-stars, but the actor comes off as stolid, passive and inert. I found it impossible to get involved in Micky's story simply because he barely seemed to be involved in it himself, and the unfortunate truth about The Fighter is that the film reflects Wahlberg rather than its more colourful characters in its latter stages, narrowing into a flat and humdrum boxing picture, and leaving behind the real drama outside the ring.