I have never gone, and never want to go, to an actual boxing match. To see two men — and now women — battering each other until one is knocked senseless seems altogether too primal.
Despite that, it’s a sport I’ve long followed. For years I watched matches on TV and read about fighters in Sports Illustrated. When Normal Mailer or Joyce Carol Oates wrote books about boxers, I bought ‘em.
I don’t track boxing as closely these days, but still I find myself, on more weekends than I care to count, sitting mesmerized in front of the ESPN Classics channel as Gene Tunney beats Jack Dempsey with the long count or Muhammad Ali floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.
What would drive a man to slug others and risk his own life by allowing himself to be slugged? The easy answer is money. Most professional fighters come from deprived backgrounds; boxing is a way out.
The best of boxing movies get this, but they also get that financial concerns are rarely the sole reason propelling a man into the ring. The are as much about a fighter’s psychology as his physique. It’s what broadens their appeal beyond just fans of the sweet science.
In Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull,” arguably the greatest boxing movie ever, real life pugilist Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) is a seething, red-hot ball of self-loathing, as brutal on himself and those close to him as he is to opponents.
In Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby,” the real fight for female boxer Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) comes after a beating in the ring leaves her a quadriplegic. For her, it’s now a fight to the finish — she must enlist her trainer (Eastwood) to help her die — in the most permanent sense.
Even the first “Rocky” (forget the chest-beating, hyperbolic sequels) exhibited a fascination with why a mediocre fighter, who knew he couldn’t win, would still climb into the ring where he would be battered yet refuse to end his own misery by going down.
David O. Russell’s newest, “The Fighter,” gets to double-down on the interior struggles of boxers, because it’s about two of them: real-life half-brothers “Irish” Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), from working class Lowell, Massachussetts.
Dicky, the elder brother, is a once promising fighter — he managed to knock down Sugar Ray Leonard before losing a match to him — who is now a crack addict. He also serves as trainer for the younger Micky, who grew up idolizing Dicky.
But the family dynamics are more complicated than that. Dicky and now Micky are managed and promoted by their mother (Melissa Leo) who, in addition to her sons, also has seven daughters, each with hair dyed blonder and teased higher than the next. Mom is so eager for money that she willingly books Mickey into fights he can’t hope to win.
Life is messy, to put it politely, for this clan. And “The Fighter” smartly concentrates its story right there, in the conflicting push and pull of familial love and obligation.
Micky is torn between loving his brother and mother and wanting them there to help with his career as a boxer, and knowing that they may be keeping him from achieving his full potential.
With “The Fighter,” Russell has made his best movie since “Three Kings.” Like that earlier film, it keeps reminding you of classic old Hollywood fare and yet gives it a very up-to-date, even meta twist.
Take, for example, Dicky’s decline; it is being tracked for much of the film. Only when he sees himself smoking crack in a documentary does he begin to comprehend the depth of the black hole into which he has fallen and to consider what he needs to do to climb out.
The standout performance here is by Bale, though it’s almost too showy. His Dicky is a jittery ball of nerves who talks too fast, jokes too much and still carries himself as if he owned the world, when all he really owns is the attention and adulation of his small, sad posse of fellow crack addicts. But when the final credits roll and you get a glimpse of and listen to the real Dicky, you realize just how dead-on Bale’s performance is — he was, it seems, as much channeling as acting.
Wahlberg (who also produced), who can often be so stolid he just sucks the air out of a movie, here delivers an appealing and nuanced performance. Leo plays the misguided monster of a mother with energy and snap and Adams brings both depth and charm to her role as a bartender with whom Micky falls in love.
Come Oscar season, I’m guessing both “The Fighter” and, especially Bale, are going to be contenders.