The nastiest, meanest, toughest brawl in The Fighter (David O. Russell, 2010) doesn’t take place in a boxing ring. It’s the knockdown, drag-out, hair-pulling, nose-breaking front porch melee between Mickey Ward’s girlfriend, Charlene (Amy Adams), and the women of his family — seven sisters and their mother, the leathery, foul-mouthed Alice Ward (Melissa Leo). This is no erotic mud wrestling or pillow fighting. This is Mean Streets with a bouffant hairdo, Lowell, Mass. circa 1993. Mickey (Mark Wahlberg) has to carry Charlene off squirming so she doesn’t get picked to the bone.
Lived-in moments like this, especially in the treacly genre of Cinderella sports movies, are a rare thing indeed. The Fighter does fall victim to some of the old tropes — its “true life” depiction of Ward, perennial underdog, misses his epic trilogy of fights against Arturo Gatti in service of a simpler story. Yet, Russell provides a focused, honest depiction of a city and a family stuck somewhere before their respective revivals. He’s willing to risk showing what’s most unsavory. Micky’s coach and brother, Dicky (an electric Christian Bale), is wiry and strung-out, a crackhead on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Alice, though she may mean well, is vindictive and venomous, snaking about looking to throw a jab.
Bale and Leo, both Oscar winners for their roles, pull off their tasks with panache; by the end of the film Dicky and Alice seem all-too-human victims of a world that’s dealt them, like the city they live in, a pretty crummy hand. The Fighter luxuriates in this loose, easy texture, lingering in smoky bars and crowded living rooms like a neighborhood sipping a High Life. That’s it’s real genius, getting just right the confluence of time and place, fashion and foibles, that created, even loved, “Irish” Mickey Ward. The climactic fight scene is great. Don’t get me wrong. But in the annals of great boxing movies — Raging Bull and Million Dollar Baby come to mind — it’s what goes on outside the confines of the ring that matters. That’s where the most blood is drawn, and where the bandages eventually come off.