The Fighter (15)

The Fighter is a boxing film that packs a punch outside of the ring.

Films are routinely missold in ways that crank up ticket sales but provoke audience resentment - think of Sweeney Todd, which gave no hint in its trailers that it was a musical, or Eyes Wide Shut, a fable about thwarted desire peddled with promises that the earth would move. To these, we can add The Fighter, "the best boxing movie since Rocky", according to its poster. This claim is a load of bull (or raging bull, to be precise). The Fighter may tell the story of two real-life Massachusetts boxers, Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), and may venture into the ring when there's no alternative, but it's no more a boxing movie than Vertigo is a film about vertigo.

Micky is a "stepping stone" - he's the boxer promoters use to nudge other fighters up the ladder. It's an endearing quirk of the film that it should have at its centre a wallflower pugilist, who doesn't so much float like a butterfly as hide in his chrysalis. But Micky's trainer and half-brother, Dicky, is brash enough for both of them. Dicky was a boxer once, too. If you can't hear him crowing about when he put Sugar Ray Leonard on the canvas, he's probably dozing. He dreams of glory but the camera crew following him around is documenting his drug addiction, not his cloud-cuckoo comeback. With his astonished eyes and goofy gait, he's like a crackhead Bugs Bunny.

It doesn't matter that Wahlberg and Bale do not seem to belong in the same movie or the same family: Micky's separateness and his struggle to forge ahead as a welterweight contender become the theme of the film. While Bale is like a fist in the face, Wahlberg stays intriguingly passive; he hangs back, appearing to recede, even in close-up. This must be the most undemonstrative lead performance since Woody Allen in Zelig.

The rest of the family is no less volatile than Dicky. The matriarch, Alice (Melissa Leo), is a peroxide Medusa with an entourage of rabid daughters in tow. Alice is Micky's manager but it's her relationship with Dicky that gives the picture its vivid emotional charge, more
so than anything we see between Micky and Charlene (Amy Adams), the barmaid who wants to free him from his mother's grasp. Dicky makes life-threatening leaps from his crack-house window whenever Alice comes knocking, so desperate is he not to let her down. He knows how to neutralise her disappointment when it comes: he sings softly to her and she joins in through her tears.

David O Russell, the film's director, has form with families for which the term "dysfunctional" would be flattering: Spanking the Monkey (1994) concerns mother-son incest, while Flirting With Disaster (1996) transforms a man's search for his biological parents into incendiary screwball. The domestic conflicts in The Fighter, which are both explosive and funny, bring him full circle. Boxing doesn't interest Russell; the fight scenes are so artless that they could pass for pay-per-view. Micky even seems to find peace in the ring: there, he can resort to technique ("Head, body, head, body" is his soothing mantra). It's on the porch or in the sitting room that his toughest battles are fought.

Such scenes are where The Fighter achieves a kind of delirium. There are few more blissfully gruesome sights in recent cinema than the shot of Alice and her daughters pouring out of a single car with vengeance on their minds. I'm almost certain that there are seven of these sharp-beaked, wrench-faced sisters, but it's like trying to count the heads of the Hydra.

A lifetime of didactic cinema has taught us to expect a winner in the bout between Alice's and Dicky's parochialism on the one hand and Charlene's ambition on the other. Russell demonstrates, no doubt to the frustration of anyone enticed by rash comparisons with Rocky, that compromise can sometimes be the sweetest victory. Rather than demonising Micky's family or using it only for comic purposes, the film honours the value to him of his relatives' unruly energy. It's audacious enough for a Hollywood picture with such potentially high testosterone levels to incorporate an assertive female presence. That it values its working-class characters without needing to prettify or patronise them makes it rarer than boxers' teeth.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 07 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The New Arab Revolt