I’m not a fan of watching people get pummeled in the ring, but I love just about every boxing movie I’ve ever seen. Maybe that’s because they’re usually not about the boxing; they’re about the power of the human spirit, the ability of underdogs to overcome major obstacles, and the impact that one person can have on a community, a country or even the world.
‘The Fighter’ — nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture — hits all of those notes, telling the real-life story of boxer “Irish” Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a blue-collar guy from Lowell, Massachusetts who goes on to win a welterweight title, but not without a lot of losses, family frustrations, and tough talk from his bar maid girlfriend Charlene Fleming (Amy Adams).
But the film isn’t so much about Micky as it is about his dysfunctional family. In one respect, Wahlberg’s performance is clearly eclipsed by others in this movie, but that’s nothing against Wahlberg. His portrayal of Micky as a low-key, quiet warrior was molded after the real-life Micky Ward, and it’s a role Wahlberg began training for in 2005.
More memorable is Christian Bale as Micky’s older half-brother Dickie Eklund, an ex-con boxer who once went the distance with Sugar Ray Leonard. Micky always looked up to Dickie and continued to revere him, even as the older brother devolved into a scrawny crackhead with a cigarette behind one ear and a loose arm perpetually around Micky’s shoulder.
In the film, Dickie believes that HBO is filming a documentary about him; in reality, it’s a film about addiction that breaks both Dickie’s heart and ours as he gathers his buddies in prison to watch, only to be humiliated by the film’s raw message.
Bale’s performance as the demon-driven Dickie is nothing short of brilliant. During the movie, I Twittered that if he wasn’t nominated for every award this season, there is no justice in the world. Sure enough, he’s been nominated for a slew of awards, including an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. He’s already won several awards, including a Golden Globe.
Another stand-out is Melissa Leo, who plays Micky’s pseudo-manager mom Alice Ward. Leo has been toiling in the film industry for some 30 years and finally started getting some recognition with 2008’s ‘Frozen River,’ for which she was nominated for an Oscar. I’ve had that film in my to-watch pile for eons, and seeing her in ‘The Fighter’ moved ‘River’ straight to the top (stay tuned for my thoughts on that film).
Her turn as the chain-smoking, beer-drinking Alice Ward is the stuff of which legends are made; she’s already scored multiple awards and nominations, including a Best Supporting Actress nod from the Oscars. It’s one of those roles where you feel like she can’t possibly be playing a character, that this must actually be the real Alice Ward.
But no, with her bleached blond hair and self-serving persistence, Alice presides over a living room full of Micky’s seven sisters, a tribe of hair-spray-soaked women who look like they belong on a trashy reality show.
‘The Fighter’ is a boxing movie with heart, and one you should definitely see – even if, like me, you don’t particularly like watching people beating each other senseless. Will it win an Oscar for Best Picture? Probably not. My prediction is that either ‘The King’s Speech’ or ‘The Social Network’ will take that trophy home.
But I do believe that both Christian Bale and Melissa Leo will score Oscars in their categories. If they don’t, there’s no justice in the world.
‘The Fighter’ is rated R for language throughout, drug content, some violence and sexuality.
Other boxing movies I love:
‘Cinderella Man’ – Russell Crowe shines in Ron Howard’s gritty story about the real life Jim Braddock, a washed-up boxer who came back to become a champion and a symbol of hope for folks in the troubled 1930s. The cast shines with Renee Zellweger as his wife Mae and Paul Giamatti as his loyal manager Joe Gould. Braddock went from being on public assistance to taking on the heavyweight champ of the world, Max Baer, infamous for having killed two men in the ring.
‘Rocky’ – Sylvester Stallone plays Rocky Balboa, a small-time boxer who gets a once in a lifetime chance to fight the heavyweight champ in a bout that’s more about self-respect than knock-outs. And who doesn’t love the scene where Rocky runs up the museum steps to ‘Gonna Fly Now’? Here’s a bit of trivia: Stallone refused to sell the rights to the film unless he could star in it, despite the fact that he had only $106 in the bank, no car, and was trying to sell his dog because he couldn’t afford to feed it.
‘Million Dollar Baby’ – Well, maybe “love” isn’t the right word for this touching Clint Eastwood-directed film starring Hilary Swank as Maggie Fitzgerald, a poor but determined woman trying to establish herself as a boxer. I may never watch this movie again because it’s so darn depressing, but it’s also one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.
Got a favorite boxing movie? Have you seen ‘The Fighter’? Think it’ll score a Best Picture Oscar?
Images: Paramount Pictures