(David O. Russell, 2010)
The Fighter indulges in every boxing movie cliche imaginable. Here is a working class young man from a troubled background in an unfashionable part of America, taking beating after beating, his career and life seemingly going nowhere. And here is his sudden rise, buoyed by the love of a good, formidable woman, ending in a final shot at glory. Best of all, it's based on a true story. But David O. Russell really isn't interested in boxing cliches. Instead his focus is on the troubled, working class background. The young mans brother, a former golden boy contender turned chatterbox crack addict, is just as central to this film as the boxer himself, and his terrifying hydra of sisters and peroxide blonde mother are it's antagonists more than any of his opponents are.
But then Russell is clever. Understanding the cheap potency of those boxing cliches, he delivers them anyway, and they are as powerful and satisfying as ever, perhaps even moreso, because his choices are interesting. Reflecting the period in which the film is set, he shoots much of these sequences on cheap video - or at least film treated to look like video - and always includes the comentators on the soundtrack. Such fidelity to the unwritten rules of cinematic portrayals of pugilism is echoed in his cross-cutting between the ring and the reactions of spectators and the way the momentum and advantage swings between the fighters. He even throws in montages and distorts the soundtrack during slow motion instants. The film ends on a triumphant freezeframe, an almost self-parodic moment. Then Russell undercuts and denies the cliches at every turn. His characters are complex and difficult and the pain and awkwardness of their relationships is never downplayed. The big lesson he seems to have learned from Scorsese's Raging Bull is that the fights can be a relief from the emotional and psychic violence of interpersonal relationships, that the straightforward physical contest seems pure and almost wholesome by comparison.
Russell has always worked well with actors and here Christian Bale - as the crackhead brother - and Melissa Leo - as the peroxide blonde mother- are the real standouts, especially powerful in a couple of fierce scenes together, while Mark Wahlberg is all quiet, hurt dignity as the title character.
What separates the film from a legion of superficially similar boxing biopics is the energy it crackles with, there in Russell's mobile, live wire camera, the selection of classic rock and pop on the soundtrack, the intimate capture of a real community in Lowell, and in Bale's itchy bodypop of a performance.
All this and it works pretty much as well as Rocky, as feel good boxing films go.