‘The Fighter’

In perfect shape for a punch-out


“The Fighter” doesn’t bring anything new to the boxing picture genre — but it’s packed to the gills with all that reminds us why such movies enthrall.

Muhammad Ali once said that through the exchange of pain a man knows that he’s a man. In that vein, “The Fighter” gets the viewer in touch with being human, albeit with the vulnerable, disorderly and secretive side of our nature — and the sight isn’t pretty. Confronted with the chaotic mess of existence, we know that we are after all, people — capable of doing great damage and sinking into sewage. Or as “The Fighter” portrays, some of us have the potential of real-life boxer Dicky Eklund, who took blow after blow of bone-crushing humiliation until in a freak moment he landed a legendary left hook when his opponent was least expecting it.

Eklund rose briefly to fame only to crash and burn in the ring, and he casts a long shadow over “The Fighter.” The title could really be talking about him instead of the film’s real star and Eklund’s half brother, “Irish” Micky Ward.

When we are first introduced to the siblings, they’re chummy and joking around — Dicky has his arm slung protectively around Micky’s shoulders. But the happiness is superficial. Dicky (in a stunning Oscar-winning performance from Christian Bale) is now a crackhead criminal whose hopes to stage a comeback mainly revolve around coaching his kid bro (Mark Wahlberg), and he’s aided in this mission by their poisonous, manipulative mother Alice (Melissa Leo) and their seven blonde-headed sisters. Poor Micky would like to break free of these suffocating bonds, but at the beginning of the story he’s drowning in family issues and sentiment, wanting only to be like Dicky and to please his mom.

Wahlberg (a native of of a Massachusetts working-class town, just like the brothers) trained for years to play “Irish” Micky, sank a significant amount of funds as coproducer and cast about high and low for a director after being turned down by Martin Scorsese (whose own 1980 boxing pic “Raging Bull” has a totally different feel-bad texture). In the end, David O. Russell, who had directed Wahlberg in “I Heart Huckabees,” agreed to take on this hefty project.

Russell positions “The Fighter” somewhere between “Rocky” and “Million Dollar Baby,” and though the turf may be well-trodden, the little alley that the director carves out for the film feels precious and personal. The blue-collar desperation typical of the genre rises like beer froth, but there’s very little of the false buoyancy and honor-comes-first macho aesthetics of, say, “Cinderella Man.” Russell makes full use of the partnership and the complex emotional chemistry between the brothers, which is something that could not be described in the banal terms of love or hate.

The megawatt brilliance of Micky’s victories always come with the singed black edge of the presence of Dicky, whose main boast in life was that he once went the distance with Sugar Ray Leonard and keeps harping on about it with weary insistence.

Bale dropped 13 1/2 kg (a feat in which he excels, judging from such works as “The Machinist” and “American Psycho”) to play this gaunt, shriveled ex-fighter, trying to motor-mouth his way into cash and credibility. When an HBO documentary crew offers to make a movie about him and Micky, the overjoyed Dicky thinks they’re interested in his career — the program is actually about drug abuse.

Wahlberg’s demonlike training shows in his six-pack, chiseled biceps and shoulder blades the shape of pyramids. It’s said that a boxer’s body can only be attained through boxing — a three-week work out on an elliptical machine just won’t do it. The sport also requires a special psychology that feeds on resentment, fear and rage. While Dicky is all these things incarnate, Micky is much less of an exhibitionist — he fights because he needs the money, and because it’s the only way he can transport himself to a place where he wants to be. Even then, he refuses to dramatize his feelings or engage in self-analysis and would rather leave all that to his tough-as-nails girlfriend, Charlene (Amy Adams in atypical bitchy splendor).

In the end, “The Fighter” is a true boxing picture in that it tells its story through the state of its protagonists’ bodies. Micky and Dicky are fascinating for the different ways in which their lives are dictated by their bods — battered, beaten or withered by substance abuse, their synapses seem to constantly register pain and more pain. The brothers show us a world comprised entirely of flesh, blood and bones (as opposed to a world reflected on a laptop screen). How they process and translate that world into a fevered lust for battle is what charges the movie with its crazy, glorious energy.