Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale on ‘The Fighter': Contenders or Palookas?

Cast members from David O. Russell's Oscar contender tell SAG audience about doing justice to a tough story

“If we didn’t do them justice, they would have kicked the living s___ out of us,” said Mark Wahlberg to a big round of laughter at a Q&A following a Wednesday night screening of “The Fighter” on the Paramount Studios lot.

A night after the surprise AFI Fest unveiling of the film about the real-life Massachusetts boxers and brothers Micky Ward and Dickie Eklund, Wahlberg brought fellow cast members Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Jack McGee to Paramount for a SAG screening, where he joked about how the pugilist brothers served as a constant presence on the set, and as a constant reminder that the actors, and director David O. Russell, had better get it right.

The Fighter poster

“I really was thinking, Oh crap, is Dickie gonna lay one on me afterwards?” said Bale, whose haunted, fearsome portrayal of the crack-addicted older brother of Wahlberg’s character has made him a formidable Best Supporting Actor contender.

The brothers, they said, do like the film, which details the hellish addiction that wrecked Dickie’s boxing career, and the tortured relationship between Micky and his brother and domineering mother Alice (played by Melissa Leo) as he tried to fight his way up the welterweight ranks.

While the film is dark, often gripping character study, and a brutal reminder that the ties that bind can also hold us back, “The Fighter” also has moments where the depiction of Alice and her brood of brassy, big-haired daughters veers into the comic; the family’s gallery of grotesques can be a distraction from the brothers’ relationship, or from the growing bond between Micky and his girlfriend Charlene (Adams). 

But, insisted Wahlberg, those characters were in fact toned down for the  movie – as was Bale’s jittery, mumbling, fast-talking Dickie Ward. “If Dickie were here, you’d see that I really pulled back for the movie,” said Bale. “I know that sounds unbelievable.”

The other actors said they never once heard Bale speak in his real voice during the five weeks of filming; Wahlberg was similarly passionate, sculpting his body during the film’s five years of development  until he was convincing as a fighter.

“I never wanted to look like an actor who was pretty good in the ring,” he said. “I wanted to look like a fighter who would win the welterweight title.”

During the Q&A, Wahlberg admitted to flirting with the idea of going with a boxoffice star in the Dickie role to get the movie off the ground: “At one point I was thinking, well, maybe Daniel Radcliffe could  play Dickie.”

Bale took a number of questions about immersing himself in such a dark role, insisting, “I actually felt that her was kind of a light character who goes to dark places – he has this kind of buoyancy to him.”

Adams talked about how director Russell gave her a copy of “Raging Bull” before the shoot – but, to her delight, he asked her to focus on Robert De Niro’s portrayal of Jake La Motta, not  Cathy Moriarty’s work as La Motta’s wife. 

(Actually, she temporarily forgot De Niro’s name: “I just had a baby,” she explained. “The brain cells are gone.”)

And McGee gave his initial impression of the famously combative director Russell: “I thought he was a wack job. But I’m a wack job, too.”

The SAG crowd was enthusiastic in its praise of the film, just as the AFI Fest crowd had been the night before. 

This bodes well for the film’s Oscar chances, given that the actors branch is by far the Academy’s largest. And “The Fighter” is certainly now a major player in the acting categories: Bale is close to a lock for a Supporting Actor nomination, while Leo’s extravagant performance is the kind that voters have always loved.

Amy Adams and Christian BaleFor my money, though, the more restrained (by this film’s standards, anyway) Adams is even more deserving playing a tough, skeptical woman who’s not above some fisticuffs of her own. Her grounded, incredulous outsider gives the audience a way into a story that might otherwise be too heavy on grotesquerie.

The film’s mood swings, and the fact that its final stretch essentially becomes the straight boxing film it had initially avoided, suggest to me that it’s  not a slam-dunk Best Picture nominee; it may need some solid boxoffice numbers or critical praise to entice voters to give it a chance.

But it’ll quite possibly get both of those things – although on the critical front, we can currently call this one a split decision.   

TheWrap's Jeff Sneider dubbed the film "a knockout," while many of the other early reports focused on the audience reaction: Anne Thompson called it “a rousing crowd-pleaser,” Pete Hammond said “the crowd ate it up,” Steven Zeitchik declared it “had the audience engaged …  from the start.”

Gregory Ellwood, one of the most enthusiastic of the writers at the AFI Fest screening, said the film was “a legitimate Oscar player” and heaped particular praise on Adams. His HitFix colleague Drew McWeeny, meanwhile, dubbed it “a wonderful movie, commercial and approachable but built with real integrity.”

Kris Tapley was more measured in his praise (“There is much to admire about this film”) but called it “a solid contender for a Best Picture nomination,” and labeled Bale a possible Supporting Actor winner and both Leo and Adams clear Supporting Actress candidates.

But naysayers surfaced as well. At Living in Cinema, Craig Kennedy called the characters “repulsive” and said “the result is a drama that sags when it’s supposed to soar.”

And the most high-profile reviews were also the most negative. In Variety, Peter Debruge called the film “more scenery-chewing contest than traditional biopic” and said that Russell “seems confused about what to do between bouts.”

At the Hollywood Reporter, Kirk Honeycutt wrote, “The feeling persists that this is one that got away … The characters engage you up to a point but never really pull you in.”

Which means that the jury’s still out on this one, though it’s safe to say that the film has clearly made itself a contender.

Long before the Oscars, though, “The Fighter” will face one of its toughest judgments. Although Micky Ward and Dickie Eklund have seen and approved of the film, it has yet to screen for their sisters, or the other inhabitants of Lowell, Massachusetts, where the events take place and where the film was shot.

A Lowell screening is scheduled for December 7. And if it’s true that the family is even crazier in real life than they are onscreen, fireworks (or fistfights) could ensue.