Boxing movies, like most dance films, like most music films, are rags to riches tales. They tend to be “true stories” – as much as any Hollywood biopic can have any claim to veracity. They will be set in dirt-poor urban neighbourhoods, where everyone gathers outside stoops and porches when they’re not in the local bar starting fights and getting in trouble with the waitresses.
They will focus on the last shot at stardom, the fight or talent contest or rap battle that our hero or heroine absolutely cannot lose. Most importantly, they talk about how the family is the key to success, while at the same time pointing out what a bunch of monsters the family of the main character is.
The Fighter succeeds by taking all these elements and cranking them up to distortion point. It’s the tale of Micky Ward, a stepping-stone boxer used by better prospects to get up the ladder to the lucrative title bouts. Played by Mark Wahlberg as a doughy, sad-eyed lump of protein, Micky is a no-hoper, a never-gonna.
He’s crippled, not by lack of talent or fighting spirit, but by his family. Ma Ward is a manipulative harridan, seeing insult and disrespect in every stray comment. His sisters are a bunch of lemon-sucking, frizz-haired monstrosities. A Greek chorus of harpies. His brother Dicky, mentor, trainer, that guy that knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard that one time, is a manic, eye-bugging crack addict. Any one of these would be enough to send a normal person off down the street screaming. All three in one house give you a fairly close idea of the inside of a lower circle of hell.
In these kind of films, the main character always needs a love interest to help find the confidence and belief in themselves that will give them the chance to escape the traps that their live have become and live their dreams. Frequently they’re from the other side of the tracks, and it’s no different here.
Things are so low-rent in this world that Charlene, played with perky toughness by the delightful Amy Adams, stands out by having gone to college. She’s a dropout, but by sporting an education she’s some sort of interloper to the Wards, who view any outside influence with the kind of swivel-eyed suspicion that really deserves to be backed by a banjo and a hooting jug. She’s a threat to the family unit, and they make their displeasure clear.
Later in the film the ladies Ward will start a seven-to-one street catfight with the lovely Ms. Adams, as she is not only no better than she oughta be, but also indulges in lesbian threesomes, according to reliable scuttlebutt. Sadly, these speculated threesomes are never pictured, which I’m guessing means they didn’t happen. A boy can dream, I suppose.
So, there’s the inevitable schism. Dicky goes to jail, which gives Micky the excuse to break away from the Wards, and what a surprise, start winning fights. There are montages. Lots of montages. Training montages. Fight montages. Dicky in jail getting clean montages. Which is fair enough, and very much on model. Rags-to-riches tales need montages, because the process of going from rags to riches inevitably takes years and we are an impatient bunch that need to see progress fast. The dancer will slip and trip, but in a couple of lap dissolves we’ll see her pirouette across the studio floor. The rapper will frown over a blank sheet of paper, but we’ll soon see it fill with rhymes.
Dickie reappears with new teeth but the same old attitude, expecting to pick up where he left off, leading to yet more schisms and fights. Lockers get punched. I feel sorry for lockers in these kind of films. They come under all kinds of abuse.
Finally, Mickey decides that even those his family are a bunch of raving nutballs, he needs them. Or at least, the insight that Dickie has on his fighting. This again is textbook stuff, a reunion leading to the final triumph of the protagonist. Does he triumph? Well, this is the story of a fighter that won the WBU crown in 2000. There should be no surprises here.
And that’s the point, Readership. The Fighter is a film about the fight, not the victory. The important thing is not the conquest, but the battle to get there. Rags-to-riches tales make this point clearly. They end at the moment of triumph, dissolving away to a final series of cards telling us what happened next. But it’s not important. It’s all done by the time the boxer raises his hands into the flashbulbs of the cameras, or the moment that the dancer or the singer takes her bow in the blast of the spotlight. After that, we know the story. We can take over now.
One last thing. Cleverly, director David O. Russell runs footage of the real Micky and Dicky over the end credits. There’s been a lot of honking in the review columns about how broadly Christian Bale plays the manic Micky. Accusations of over-acting, of method gone mad, have been levelled at him. Watching the footage of the real Pride Of Lowell, you quickly realise that Bale calmed down his performance. The real Micky, a motormouth attention vampire, would drive you nuts in five minutes flat.