David O. Russell might not be the first name that comes to mind when picking a director for a rousing, true-life, Rocky-style boxing movie. But he certainly knows his way around a screwed-up family — which makes The Fighter far more complex and fascinating than a mere genre exercise. Don't get me wrong: this movie triumphs exuberantly as a crowd-pleasing underdog fight flick. But it really connects as a horrible and hilarious deconstruction of family values gone nuclear.
And so, to the twisted clans of Russell's Spanking the Monkey (1994) and Flirting with Disaster (1996) add the byzantine grotesques of the next of kin of "Irish" Micky Ward. Played by Mark Wahlberg (who's outstanding in a tough, understated role), the Pride of Lowell, Massachusetts, and holder of the WBU light-welterweight title in 2000, is odds-on to become the most henpecked character in the movies. Not only does he endure the tyranny of his mom and ad hoc manager, Alice (Melissa Leo), who makes the crime-family matriarch of Animal Kingdom look like a den mother, but he also suffers the attentions of seven, big-haired, harridan sisters of various ages, patrimonies, and degrees of meanness.
Still, they're just the opening act for Micky's revered half-brother Dicky, who's played in a tour de force performance by Christian Bale. Dicky is the previous Pride of Lowell, having gone toe-to-toe with Sugar Ray Leonard and even knocked the legendary champ down (unless Sugar Ray slipped). Dicky is supposed to be working Micky's corner as a trainer, but he's fallen on hard times. He'll arrive late for workouts at the gym, losing track of the time as he gets wasted with his fellow addicts. And he'll choose inopportune moments to take on the Lowell Police Department. On one such occasion, Micky, loyal sibling that he is, pitches in, getting his hand busted for his troubles.
Despite this, Dicky remains the family favorite. Maybe because whenever mom comes calling at the den of iniquity he frequents, he jumps out the second-story window — landing, appropriately, in the garbage. Bale captures every twitch and stream of consciousness of this gibbering, antic, scary charmer. And also nails the accent: his Dicky should be locked in a room with Jeremy Renner from The Town and Sam Rockwell from Conviction to see who comes out alive.
Relief for Micky comes in the form of his new sweetheart, local bargirl Charlene (Amy Adams). A smart cookie, she at once notes that Alice might not be doing such a great job managing his career — Micky's pushing 30 and still being thrown into the ring as a punching bag for fighters 20 pounds heavier (according to the movie) than himself. Charlene wants him to break with the folks and take up an offer from a legit promoter. Can Micky save his career, marry Charlene, and still not lose the kinship and inspiration of Dicky, the seven sisters, and Alice?
So, you're probably thinking: streetwise boxer, dicy brother, troublesome dame — isn't this Raging Bull all over again? But Russell's version is more theater of the absurd than grand opera. And competent and exciting though they are, the boxing sequences can't compete with Scorsese's. In fact, Russell is so engrossed in the family circus that you're surprised whenever the boxing movie breaks out. Maybe that's why, though ending on a high note, the film just seems to come to a stop. All that The Fighter needs to score a knockout is a strong last round.