January 23rd 2011

The Fighter

Directed by David O. Russell | Run time: 115 mins

Film Review by Lynda Cowell

For about two weeks last year Eastenders’ resident hard man, Phil Mitchell, became a crackhead – with hilarious consequences. After a 48-hour binge on booze and drugs, he emerged from a squat, twitching, gurning and gibbering into the sunlight sporting a beard and a comedy crack habit. Thankfully, it didn’t last and we were all relieved to see Phil return to Walford with his thuggish ways and psychotic demeanour still intact.   

As crack addiction exposes go, Phil’s 10-second descent into drugs hell was ridiculous and rubbish. If you want true insight into the pitfalls of addiction, take a look at HBO’s 1995 documentary, High on Crack: Lost Lives in Lowell.  

The documentary followed crack addicts Boo, Brenda and Dickie Ecklund, an erstwhile professional welterweight boxer whose biggest claim to fame was knocking Sugar Ray Leonard down in 1978. Between toots on the crack pipe, you could almost see Dickie replaying his former glories as the Pride of Lowell.  

Shunted off to prison away from his young son, and his addictions, the documentary turns its attention away from Dickie’s miserable existence and focuses on Boo and Brenda: a couple too tragic for words.  

Any one of their lives could have been fair game for a film script but it was Dickie’s hard luck tale which caught media mogul, Harvey Weinstein’s eye. What’s not to love about the tale of a man who trades legendary status as a boxer for drug addiction? 

Although unmissable, what the documentary doesn’t offer is an insight into Dickie’s family life: the early boxing success, the brother who worshipped him and tried to emulate him, as well as the overbearing mother and coven of bitchy sisters.  

Dickie and Micky are opposites. Dickie is loud and gregarious, Micky is quieter. Dickie loves the limelight – thrives on it, in fact, while Micky, crushed by the weight of his brother’s former success is full of self doubt. Even the casting reflects the differences: Christian Bale’s tall frame lends itself to the gaunt frame of a drug addict and Mark Wahlberg’s heft is ideal for the role of Dickie’s brother, Micky.  

This was Wahlberg’s star turn, and while he is great as Micky, The Fighter is undoubtedly Bale’s film from the outset. Wahlberg is understated and does all the right things in all the right places, but it is Bale’s overbaked, bug-eyed druggie that really steals the show.  

Occasionally, Bale’s portrayal teeters on the brink of caricature, but overall he manages to balance funny, tragic and pathetic, simultaneously and seamlessly. Surely one in the eye for Matt Damon and Brad Pitt (who both dropped the role), now he’s acquired a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor.  

What works about The Fighter is that it’s more than just another film about boxing. Yes, there’s the obligatory shots of hooded figures getting fit for the fight, or close-ups on bloody bouts in the ring, but the explosive dynamics of the family melodrama somehow wrings something different out of the formula.  

In an ideal world The Fighter would be shown alongside the original HBO documentary, but this isn’t an ideal world – as Dickie Eckland would no doubt tell you.

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