Monday, January 17, 2011

Holiday Flicks, Part II - "The Fighter"

It’s highly unlikely that we’ve seen every Oscar nominee in every category, but after wrapping up the holiday releases, I’m confident that we’ll have most of the major categories covered.

“The Fighter” is the kind of movie that, when made well, becomes an Oscar contender. When made poorly, it becomes the butt-end of jokes on Letterman, Conan and Leno. Fortunately, this one is made very well. The story, though one that is based on true events, could almost be accused of being hackneyed. You’ve got the good-guy boxer, you’ve got the older half-brother boxer who has fallen on hard times thanks to an insatiable hankering for snorting/smoking coke/crack/meth/whatever, you’ve got the domineering mother who also serves as good-boxer’s manager, you’ve got the crazy family, and you’ve got the tough but tender and supportive girlfriend. Sound familiar?

But with this group of actors and this execution, the movie works very well, and will likely take a spot in the pantheon of boxing movies. Let’s start with Mark Wahlberg, who is very good as Mickey Ward, all around good guy and neighborhood hero. Wahlberg should probably be considered the true auteur of the film, because without his efforts over a long period of years, the movie probably would not have been made. But it’s a sign of the movie’s success that he is probably least impressive of the lead actors, and you’ll just have to believe me that I don’t intend that as an insult. It’s just that the others are so good.

Amy Adams plays Mickey’s girlfriend Charlene, and her performance is a revelation. I was not that impressed by her turn in “Julie and Julia,” but now I think she was just playing the character – because here, she’s nothing short of spectacular. As Mickey’s half-brother Dicky, Christian Bale is spectacular, proving that he’s willing to do just about anything – in this case, lose a hell of a lot of weight – to make a role work. But losing weight does not a good performance make, and it can honestly be said that Bale is totally consumed by the character – absent the publicity for the film, one could be excused for not realizing that the person they’re watching on the screen is Christian Bale. Can you hear that sound? It’s Oscar calling.

But as good as Bale is, even he doesn’t quite match the titanic performance of Melissa Leo as Mickey and Dicky’s mother. And I can honestly say that I never saw this coming when I watched Leo on a regular basis when she was a member of the cast of “Homicide.” She’s just amazing – downright frightening in her determination to have Mickey succeed, to have Dicky be a part of that success, and to support her family, however crazy they may seem to someone on the outside. If she doesn’t win the Oscar, it will be a major upset.

But in the end, the key to any boxing movie is in the authenticity of its boxing scenes. And on this score, “The Fighter” passes on all counts. You believe what you are seeing, and you believe that Wahlberg is a real boxer. All in all, it makes for a powerful mix.

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