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Feature


Based on a true story, The Fighter follows Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a welterweight boxer from a working class family in Lowell, Massachusetts. Micky is managed by his larger than life mother Alice (Melissa Leo), and trained by his brother Dicky (Christian Bale), a formerly successful boxer himself. Dicky’s drug addiction makes him difficult to trust, and Alice’s guilt trips keep Micky from moving onto bigger and better things. After hooking up with a local barista named Charlene Fleming (Amy Adams), Micky battles with his loyalty to his family and his need to break out on his own.

 Fighter, The
The Boxing Film – often an underdog story, always concerned with self-destruction, and commonly popular among film critics and the Academy. I’ve come to realize I’m not really a fan of the subgenre, despite years of my best efforts. Rocky and Ali never brought me to my feet, Million Dollar Baby and The Boxer didn’t manage to touch my heart, and even older classics like The Great White Hope have done little to rile my spirit. Only Martin Scorsese’s incomparably poetic Raging Bull, and Shinya Tsukamoto’s incomparably weird Tokyo Fist ever really amazed me, and have inspired multiple viewings. I kind of gave up on changing my mind on the subgenre after special ordering and not really enjoying Ryu Seung-Wan’s heavy-handed (gloved?) Crying Fist. I have the capacity to love these films, but there’s something about the formula that usually doesn’t do it for me. At the same time I’m very torn on director David O. Russell’s work. I didn’t like Spanking the Monkey or Flirting with Disaster, and haven’t ever felt the need to re-watch I Heart Huckabees, even though I think Three Kings remains one of the more overlooked films of the ‘90s. These factors kept me from seeing The Fighter upon its initial theatrical release. I’m happy Paramount sent me an unsolicited review copy, because I may have gone my entire life without bothering, and that would’ve been tragic.

First of all, I’m very happy Darren Aronofsky decided to pass the project on to Russell. This story is too close to The Wrestler, we wouldn’t have gotten The Black Swan, and in all the material plays to Russell’s strengths without being a retread of his other work. I’d heard that The Fighter was an actor’s film, which isn’t a lie, but cheapens Russell’s involvement. The director has a special brand of dry, dark comedy, and without it The Fighter would be just another boxer flick. The script features strong characters (based on real people, which solves most of that problem), and some incredibly canny dialogue, but the story itself isn’t particularly novel. Without the director’s stylistic influences I’m almost positive even performances as strong as these couldn’t have made it a believable Oscar contender. I’m assuming the film-within-a-film documentary style aspects would’ve been just as well handled by Aronofsky, based on his similar work on The Wrestler (at least visually), but Russell deals with human interaction on less melodramatic terms. The Fighter has a compassionate and funny angle that keeps it from retreading The Wrestler, or more importantly all those depressing boxing movies I mentioned above. There are a few times where the narrative drags, but for the most part I was surprised how effortless and entertaining the whole affair is.

 Fighter, The
The biggest surprise is that Russell has come up with an original way to film the boxing scenes. If Scorsese put a cork in anything with Raging Bull, it was dynamic boxing scenes. Russell’s editing practices, and some of his camera work during non-fighting scenes, is reminiscent of Goodfellas, but when it comes to the ring he doesn’t even try to compete with Scorsese’s incendiary fisticuffs. The more important fights are shot to look like a real cable TV match, complete with strange film quality, and less than ideal camera angles. Besides being a novel approach, this sets the movie audience up in a similar mindset to audiences that may’ve seen these fights the first time around. This choice also lets Russell ramp the more subjective camera work during the climatic fight, which requires a bit more suspense and build than the others (all the other fights are really incidental compared to the drama of the character interactions anyway).

I wasn’t about to take the word of hundreds of critics and the Academy when it came to Christian Bale’s performance. I’ve grown sick of the actor’s miserably method performances, and assumed a washed up, crack head boxer was right up this particularly depressing alley, but Bale plays Dicky with genuine warmth and affection. Despite all the horrible, worthless crap he puts his family through it’s almost impossibly not to like Dicky, especially when he’s making peace among his family members. I’m often confused by Mark Wahlberg, who can be either consistently amazing or terrible, depending on the film and material. Scrutinizing his work it’s pretty clear that his performances depend on his director, and casting to his strengths. Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson both got good work out of him, but Russell has done it three times now, and arguably I Heart Huckabees marks Mark’s one time stealing the show from everyone else on screen. Wahlberg’s role in The Fighter is pretty thankless – he’s a good person, he doesn’t have much of an emotional arc, and he’s forced to play straight man to Bale – but he makes it work, and ultimately almost half the film rests on his shoulders. Melissa Leo earns her supporting actress award, and proves that she’s an incredible chameleon, but I came away more impressed with Amy Adams, who was also nominated for best supporting actress. Perhaps it’s just seeing her successfully work so hard against type (she even kisses against type), but her delightfully blusterous performance is believable, rough, and tender all at the same time.

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Video


The Fighter is a rare bird in that it’s both raw and pretty. David O. Russell and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema colour timed the movie to be quite warm (on the commentary Russell describes it as the opposite of Hoytema’s work on Let the Right One In). Skin tones are a little redder than normal, interiors are yellowed, and outdoor scenes feature poppy cooler hues, especially the lush greens of vegetation. There are a few different kinds of film used, including standard 35mm, 8mm home movies, and recreations of NTSC/HD video television events. Most of my comments above refer to the 35mm base stock, which does feature some reasonably heavy grain, especially considering the natural lighting, which leads to particularly dark night sequences, but this never becomes a real problem. Extreme facial close-ups feature plenty of fine textures, but it’s the wider shots of the streets that impress with their varied details, and expressive colours. The video scenes are still sharp and colourful, but feature rough scan lines, and heavy edge enhancement. Russell discusses the process on the commentary, which apparently involved shooting on older video cameras with a real HBO boxing crew, then altering the footage digitally to ensure it didn’t look too jagged when blown up on the big screen.

Audio


Russell’s audio choices are very basic, very natural and mostly centered, which makes total sense given his pseudo documentary look. Even the relatively noisy street scenes, and sequences of cheering inmates are relatively subdued when it comes to stereo and surround effects. The biggest aural moments come out of music, and during the various boxing matches. The fight scenes still aim for a ‘realistic’ mix, but sound more like a modern 5.1 sporting event, and slowly build to something more stylized and dynamic. Crowd noise is the main surround event, though the swinging punches do connect with a stereo swoop. The more impresses aspects of the audio design is the juxtaposition of image and sound between scenes. The most impressive example is early in the game when Bale runs across town to the sound of Wahlberg smacking the speed bag. There’s very little score to the film (mostly ambient, swelling strings, or a subtle bass throb), but there are some choice pop and rock cuts, and these define certain scenes, just like the best Scorsese films.

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Extras


The special features begin with a solo commentary track featuring director David O. Russell. The important thing I learned from this particular track is that much of the film was made on the fly. Many of the cinematography techniques were off the cuff creations, and though most of the dialogue was scripted, the tone belonged to the actors. The other especially exciting aspect of this relatively subdued commentary is discussion concerning the real story and Mark Wahlberg’s place in the project. Until I watched the film with the track I had no idea that Wahlberg was really the person that ushered the project to completion over the years. Russell isn’t great at maintaining his flow, and loses his momentum at times, but overall the track is worth listening to.

‘The Warriors Code: Filming The Fighter’ (30:00, HD) is a rather intimate look behind the scenes of the film, including interviews with Russell, Wahlberg, Bale, producer Todd Lieberman, the real Micky Ward, the real Dicky Eklund, and other real life folks and crew members. Subject matter includes location shooting, casting, interactions with the actors and their counterparts, filming the boxing scenes, and basic direction. The footage of the real people and locations is the most interesting stuff, as are the bits where Wahlberg discusses his four year preparation (at one point he lists the films he made after finishing reading the script before The Fighter started filming). ‘Keeping the Faith’ (8:30, HD) is a further exploration of the actual family, and fills in the events that occur before the film. I’d personally prefer a full on, feature length documentary on the subject, but this does fill a void. The extras are completed with 16 deleted/alternate/extended scenes (16:50, HD), four of which feature optional commentary from Russell, and a theatrical trailer. Most of the deleted scenes appear to be part of a cut that included more of the documentary aspects, and some of Bale’s best performance.

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Overall


The Fighter has real heart, power performances, dynamic direction, and all the other stereotypes that go along with reviews of great movies. It’s certainly not my personal best picture pick, but it’s the first acclaimed boxing flick I’ve thoroughly enjoyed in years, and I’m happy to join the chorus of excited supporters. This Blu-ray release looks quite pretty, and sounds pretty good, despite a less than spectacular audio mix. The extras could be a little more substantial given the real life stories behind the film, but what we do get is solid enough to enjoy.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Thanks to Troy at Andersonvision.com for the screen-caps.


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