It’s a knockout! Ok, maybe not, but The Fighter overcomes familiar genre conventions that make for a rousing theatrical experience. While Christian Bale and Melissa Leo give scenery chewing performances that have garnered critical praise, it is Mark Wahlberg’s restrained performance as Micky Ward that drew me in. Less a boxing film and more a family-centric drama, The Fighter places Wahlberg in a shadowed position, wherein his role as son, brother, boxer, etc is overshadowed by all those around him. Even as the film spars its way to a neatly wrapped conclusion, the sense that Wahlberg never escapes that shadow is something I found infinitely more interesting that Dicky Eklund’s (Christian Bale) crack addiction or Alice Ward’s (Melissa Leo) maternal and professional missteps. The film’s most compelling scenes stem from a romantic relationship between Micky and a bartender named Charlene (Amy Adams) – following a loss, Micky wallows in self-pity, only for Charlene to help him restore a sense of self. The two have a humorous, if not sweet, courtship that serves to cushion some of the more intense dramatic elements of the narrative. Furthermore, it serves to reexamine the passiveness exhibited by Micky, which works in sharp contrast to his own violent profession.
Russell’s direction is particularly commendable, as he takes genre conventions and tinkers with expectations a bit. Fights are shot as if HBO-specials, whereas reaction shots from family and friends are done differently. It’s a minor adjustment that really aids in making the whole situation feel more genuine. Russell essentially constructs a world outside of the boxing ring, shaping the neighborhood in Lowell as something more volatile and dangerous to Micky than anything he encounters in the ring.