A lot can happen in six years. Just six years ago, the planet was still iPhone free, Tony Blair was ruling the country and if asked about 3D cinema, most members of the public would probably have dismissed the concept as an archaic, faddish novelty. It was also just over six years ago that we last saw work from US director David O. Russell, with the comedy I Heart Huckabees (2004). He returns this week with The Fighter (2010).
Russell rose to prominence as a film maker with the well-received, imaginatively shot Gulf War treasure hunt Three Kings (1999), starring George Clooney, Spike Jonze, Ice Cube and importantly Mark Wahlberg; a recurrent figure in the director’s work, and the underdog protagonist of his biographical boxing drama The Fighter.
Wahlberg stars as real life professional boxer “Irish” Micky Ward, a young kid from the working class suburbs of Lowell, Massachusetts, with aspirations of emulating the pugilistic success of older brother “Dicky” (Christian Bale, on top form). Everything seems set for a ‘rags to riches’ Rocky (1976) emulation, until we discover that Dicky has become a slave to his own crippling addiction to crack cocaine. Unable to get “into the corner” and support his younger, less experienced brother, Micky soon finds himself bouncing from defeat to humiliating defeat, dismissed as nothing more than a “stepping stone” (a derogative term used to describe poor boxers, whose primary function is to help other fighters climb the ranks) by the Lowell community, including feisty local barmaid Charlene (an impressive Amy Adams).
The Fighter’s journey from script to screen is almost as arduous as that of Mickey’s from street rat to Welterweight champion. Starting life as a vague screenplay in 2004, Wahlberg was first aboard the project, but after a rejection from Raging Bull (1981) maestro Martin Scorsese (who else), The Fighter remained without a director until the appointment of ‘man of the moment’ Darren Aronofsky in late 2007. After Aronofsky’s departure deep into pre-production, Russell was brought on board at the request of Wahlberg himself, a wise move given the fact that – alongside P.T. Anderson – Russell is one of a handful of directors to have been able to get the best out of “Marky Mark”.
Unfortunately for Wahlberg, but in keeping with the film’s real-life back story, Christian Bale’s masterful performance as the unpredictable Dicky Eklund leaves no space for comparison. Make no mistake; despite the near certainty of the star picking up the ‘Best Supporting Actor’ gong (perhaps the film’s one genuine “title chance” amongst its surprising haul of seven nominations) at this year’s 83rd Academy Awards, this is Bale’s movie. The film is at its very best when the Russell’s camera is trained upon his hyperactive, ego centric muse, particularly during one of his many recollections of the time when he knocked boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard to the canvas.
Significantly less interesting are the fight sequences themselves, raising little more than a half-hearted wince as yet another tiresome slow motion shot depicts glove meeting jaw. The true drama of The Fighter lies within the film’s numerous fractious relationships; between student and mentor, addict and athlete, family identity and individualism. Unfortunately for the film, Russell ultimately drops some of the more interesting internal conflicts in favour of a genre-abiding, mainstream finale that – when compared with the director’s oeuvre – appears to betray his own sensibilities.
The Fighter is the cinematic equivalent of the conflict between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. At points, the film is hopelessly tied to generic convention, even down to the stale montage sequences. Yet the film is at its best during its wilder moments – particularly Dicky’s appetite for self-destruction – which leaves one dreaming of what may have come to pass had Aronofsky’s head not been turned by an apparently more “dignified” physical discipline.