by Tony Dayoub
It doesn't even take as long as you'd think. In fact, it begins during the opening credits for The Fighter. Christian Bale, already being lauded for his "scene-stealing" turn as the crack-addicted former boxer Dicky Eklund, starts showboating. And then, as he walks through his neighborhood with the film's ostensible star—Mark Wahlberg playing Eklund's brother Micky Ward—with a camera crew and some locals (surely non-actors given their earthy, blank-faced realism) gathered around them, someone stops to take a picture of Micky and one of the groupies, and Bale photo-bombs the shot with his hyperactive mugging. It's a moment indicative of the movie's flaws. Director David O. Russell (Three Kings), often portrayed as a control freak of the worst kind, gives up control to the manically cocky Bale, and The Fighter buckles to its knees.
Though Russell is enamored with Bale's turn as Dicky, The Fighter is supposed to be about Micky, an aging welterweight living in the fading shadow of Dicky, touted as "The Pride of Lowell" because he managed to go an entire match against Sugar Ray Leonard before losing by unanimous decision. Dicky trains Micky when he isn't disappearing to indulge in his addiction, while their mother Alice (Melissa Leo) plays manager to Micky almost as an afterthought; Micky is bringing home just enough prize money for his extended family (including a pack of shrewish sisters) to scrape by while Alice tries to engineer Dicky's comeback. Micky keeps turning down obvious opportunities to rise above the smothering environs of Lowell, Massachusetts because none of the men who offer to bankroll him want to deal with the strung-out Dicky or the demanding Alice. It's only when he falls for scrappy waitress Charlene (Amy Adams) that Micky begins to see how much his mother and brother are actually holding him back.
There's an intriguing romance between Wahlberg and Adams at the heart of The Fighter, quietly and contemplatively trying to wiggle its way out. But Bale's outsized performance as Dicky is louder and bigger, eclipsing rather than enhancing the story in much the same way Dicky blocks Micky from everybody's view. I guess that's sort of the point, isn't it? Except Bale's hollow-eyed, twitchy, junkie goes from merely distracting to positively transgressive the way Russell frames him. Where our hero Micky is often framed in medium shots, the squirrely Dicky gets the benefit of close-ups, pushing all other characters and actors out of view. Don't blame Bale, whose fury can be electrifying when harnessed by a strong director. It's a lapse in judgement by the usually capable Russell who here can't seem to maintain the difficult balancing act without tipping over onto Dicky's side.
It forces Wahlberg and Adams' nuanced portrayals to look small scale, even though this otherwise typical fight movie is indeed meant to be a minor genre piece. That is to say, Bale is acting in a totally different film than his costars are, a grander, redemptive epic also called The Fighter but centered around him, a faded boxer trying to overcome the addiction he's given his life over to. The Dicky subplot is overcooked within the context of what amounts to a standard fight film by way of a very specific working-class New England setting, akin to what Winter's Bone did by setting its neo-noir in hillbilly country.
I don't mean to come down too hard on The Fighter. I got caught up fairly often in Micky Ward's plight, one in which he must choose between his constraining family and his own relatively quiet aspirations. I admire how forthcoming the film is about Charlene half-seeing Micky as her ticket out of Lowell. If only the sound of Bale's Dicky hijacking the film didn't keep drowning everything else out.