Knock-out! A boxer and his family

2011-02-28 00:00

BOXING movies tend to follow a fairly predictable trajectory through triumph and defeat, not always in that order. At their simplest, they’re underdog-makes-good movies such as the Rocky series. Seldom are they scripted in the tragic realist mode that made a film about a different sporting code, last year’s The Wrestler, such a wrenching, anti-heroic drama.

The Fighter does a bit of both. On the one hand, it’s something straight out of Jerry Springer. Chain-smoking matriarch Alice (Melissa Leo, who by the time you read this won’t have got the Oscar she was tipped for), manages Micky (Mark Wahlberg), her youngest son, whose role in the family is to be a money-earning punchbag. The legend in the family is in fact his older half-brother Dicky (Christian Bale), who once decked Sugar Ray Leonard but then turned into a crackhead trading on his reputation. In the monkey gallery is an assortment of no-hope sisters of the kind Jerry Springer manages to get to gouge out each other’s eyes on stage. Alice imagines that she has the family under her protective wing, but the truth of the matter is that they keep tearing each other apart psychologically, trapping themselves in the post-industrial wasteland of a rustbelt town called Lowell.

Against this more subtle backdrop of social hardship and doomed ambition the Rocky storyline takes place. Micky is tired of being a stepping stone for other boxers earmarked for greater things. He’s tired of living under his brother’s shadow. He’s in love (with Charlene, played spunkily by Amy Adams) and wants a better life. So he turns his back on his overbearing family to concentrate on training and picking up fights in which others get to be the stepping stones.

Wahlberg delivers an understated performance as an ordinary Joe trying to get a decent break. Melissa Leo as the high-maintenance, tyrannically well-meaning mother is riveting, but my vote goes to Christian Bale for a completely wired performance. All are convincing as desperate characters fighting for survival and salvation. A knock-out.

*****

 

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