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A showy Christian Bale performance can't cover up major flaws in 'The Fighter'

With Christian Bale, sometimes you aren't sure whether you're watching great acting or overacting. In The Fighter, Bale's adherence to method acting is certainly pronounced, and it nearly blows the rest of the picture out of the water.

Very loosely based on the real-life family drama of boxer Micky Ward and his brother, a former contender named Dicky Eklund, The Fighter depicts an up-and-comer and a has-been, shackled together by the sport and the bloodline they share. Fans of the sweet science know Ward's story already, but they may not know that Eklund once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard. Or maybe Leonard slipped. Either way, it was Eklund's crowning achievement, but everything went downhill after that, thanks largely to crack and prison.

To bring Eklund to life, Bale pulled his extreme-weight-loss gambit out of mothballs. Here, Bale isn't as freakish as he was in The Machinist, but he's also not as in the pocket as in Rescue Dawn, which featured one of Bale's more fearless yet understated portrayals to date. During the period of his life covered here, Eklund was not only battling crack addiction on a daily basis; his struggle was being chronicled by HBO for a 1995 documentary.

As Ward, Mark Wahlberg relies, as he usually does, on his quiet resolve. Rarely does the forceful Wahlberg show up in films (although that Wahlberg did well in The Departed). Because Wahlberg is more reflective here, Bale's performance casts an even larger shadow.

It is actually two supporting actresses who should get the most praise here: Both Melissa Leo (as the brothers' mother) and Amy Adams (as Ward's girlfriend) do more with less—less screen time, less histrionics than Bale, and less fanfare. Leo, an Oscar nominee two years ago for Frozen River, gives every indication of being the type of mother who could raise one severely fractured son and one very indecisive one. Adams continues to show a broadening range, playing a barmaid getting by on street smarts and sass.

The Fighter emerges at the time of year when expectations come pre-packaged: This is a film seeking attention for gold statues, and is primarily hanging its hopes on Bale. It might have a chance there, presumably in the Best Supporting Actor category, but his work is in the service of a film that is more cloying than complex and more hammy than heartfelt, and Bale's effort itself seems almost unnecessarily showy. The events depicted here are also way off chronologically, and that could hurt the movie in the final voting analysis.

It is a suspiciously by-the-numbers production by David O. Russell, the mercurial director of Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees. Something of his nature is absent in The Fighter: It's the first David O. Russell movie in which the director appears to be an observer instead of a guiding influence.

There are two major flaws that stand out. The first is to have Christian Bale go through all the trouble of dropping the weight and studying and training with the manic Dicky Eklund, only to have the character walk away from a terrible addiction. Literally, he just walks away from it. It doesn't offer much of a payoff for the film's primary subplot.

The second real concern is the boxing itself. The obligatory moving-up-the-ranks montage shows absolutely no spirit (and very little fighting, in fact), and the climactic match is loaded with those big, sweeping hooks that look campy even in Rocky movies. They're identifiable by being the exact punches nobody would ever throw in a title fight.

Of course, by that point in the film, haymakers are about the only thing Russell has left.

The Fighter
Rated R · 116 minutes · 2010
Official Site: www.thefightermovie.com
Director: David Russell
Producer: David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman, Ryan Kavanaugh, Mark Wahlberg, Dorothy Aufiero, Paul Tamasy, Tucker Tooley, Darren Aronofsky, Leslie Varrelman, Keith Dorrington and Eric Johnson
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, Jack McGee, Mickey O'Keefe, Melissa McMeekin, Bianca Hunter, Erica McDermott, Jill Quigg, Dendrie Taylor, Kate O'Brien, Jenna Lamia, Frank Renzulli, Paul Campbell, Caitlin Dwyer and Chanty Sok

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What others are saying (14)

Charleston City Paper David O. Russell affectionately portrays a blue-collar clan in The Fighter The Eklund clan, stars of The Fighter, are not necessarily an introspective bunch. Matriarch Alice Eklund (Melissa Leo) hasn't absorbed the fact that her beloved son Dicky (Christian Bale) is a crack addict. And Dicky hasn't thought about how he will look when an HBO documentary about crack addiction he stars in finally airs. With hair-trigger tempers, this Lowell, Mass., family acts instead of thinks. But their id-driven lives are our entertainment gain: Based on a true story, The Fighter runneth over with raw energy, crazy action, and the highly seductive, brainless gallop of people dashing toward the brick wall of their own vanities and fears. It couldn't be more fun. by Felicia Feaster 12/15/2010
The Coast Halifax A TKO for The Fighter A cast that packs major punch makes for a standout sports movies. by Matt Semansky 12/09/2010
Boise Weekly The Prize-Winning Punch of The Fighter Oscar gives prizes to the pugilist. by Jordan Wilson 03/16/2011
11 more reviews...
Boise Weekly First Quarter Film Stinkers A closer look at the numbers indicates that neither history nor logic can justify a box office model that packs 25 percent of its calendar with high-priced trash by George Prentice 03/23/2011
NUVO Ed reviews: 'The Fighter' Packaged as a boxing story, it's actually a film about family dynamics, grandeur, denial and perseverance. One of 2010's best. by Ed Johnson-Ott 12/14/2010
Colorado Springs Independent Rocky road: The Fighter The comparisons to Stallone's masterpiece are justified, for all the best possible reasons.

by Scott Renshaw 12/16/2010
NUVO Ed predicts: 2011 Academy Award winners Hollywood hands out it's annual Oscar Awards this Sunday. This year, Ed is in agreement with the majority of the probable winners. by Ed Johnson-Ott 02/25/2011
Boise Weekly The Projector: Movies opening Friday, Dec. 17 Frosty goes Hollywood (catch him on film and you could win big, a black swan, a girl and some guys, a talking bear, a Benedictine nun and some special screenings. It's all at the movies. 12/17/2010
Indy Week The Fighter is pat and derivative The only explanation for the existence of The Fighter is the Ben Affleck-ian belief that the world can always use another blue-collar tale set among the Boston-area Irish. by Neil Morris 12/15/2010
The Coast Halifax Melissa Leo goes the distance The actor explains why her role of Alice in The Fighter didn’t feel right at first. by Matt Semansky 12/16/2010
Portland Mercury Split Decision Mark Wahlberg gets knocked out... by his supporting cast. by Wm. Steven Humphrey 12/16/2010
Creative Loafing Atlanta The Fighter's a smash hit Googley-eyed Christian Bale gives a knockout performance by Curt Holman 12/17/2010
East Bay Express The Fighter and Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale One goes ten rounds before being TKO'd, the other puts the claws back on Santa. by Kelly Vance 12/15/2010
Colorado Springs Independent Opening this week TRON, How Do You Know, even some True Grit showings 12/16/2010

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