REVIEW: The Fighter (David O. Russell, 2010)

Some filmmakers sure like to flex their versatility. Though they share themes, Darren Aronofsky's films differ wildly from one to the next. Those of Danny Boyle are structured similarly but employ dynamically varying shooting styles. Then we have the famously hot-tempered David O. Russell, whose films' common thread seems only a director credit (and, okay, Mark Wahlberg). I'm hard-pressed to think of any striking similarities between Spanking the MonkeyThree Kings and  Huckabees, the latter two of which I favor greatly. The Fighter continues the reinvention trend, though this time I'm not quite as enamored.

Russell's technique is more than adequate, as shows through naturalistic performances across the board (not just from the "names") and handheld camerawork that would be documentary-like were it not for the expert blocking. With the exception of a sparse few cringe-worthy moments (and an awkward sound mix, not that that's relevant), the result meshes subjective and complex layers of emotion with objective humor and is not nearly as hackneyed as the cliché-ridden theatrical trailer suggests.

Bringing unexpected meaning to the title's implied singularity, this story is about the tight-knit community surrounding Micky Ward (Wahlberg) before it is about Micky himself. We open on a meager documentary crew following these comfortably dysfunctional family members and friends. Like the documentarians we try to capture and register what information we can as we fly through overlapped character introductions. As we continue, though, we only ever catch glimpses of Micky's stance. Contrary to boxing film trends as seen in the likes of Requiem for a Heavyweight and Rocky (and a couple Rocky sequels), the brawler is more a local icon held up by those attached to him than a compelling character in his own right, which renders the final match more obligatory than such a thing usually is.

The Fighter really gets by on the aforementioned performances, with a yet again physically deteriorated Christian Bale (like Russell, also noted for an on-set outburst) leading the way. His character Dicky Eklund's arc, which could have used a more fleshed out second act, is the foundation. Bale inhabits Dicky perfectly, adding still another fascinating performance to his résumé. An epilogical clip of the real Dicky (with the real Micky) is a testament to this, as seeing the man's true behaviors is like seeing what we come to recognize as Bale's through a different body.

With technical aspects intricate at best and sufficient at worst with an organic blend of difficult realities and humorous deprecation, The Fighter is another mostly impressive entry from David O. Russell with a handful of good, memorable scenes, but it never really amounts to much and doesn't know when to throw in the towel.

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