The best boxing movies aren’t about the sport, but what happens outside the ropes. If “The Fighter” doesn’t quite measure up to the greats, it’s because director David O. Russell seems confused about what to do between bouts. Strangely, that unfocused quality — vs. any breakthrough narrative angle — gives the film its punch, injecting Russell’s affectionately patronizing portrait of blue-collar pugs “Irish” Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and half-brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) with chaotic energy. More scenery-chewing contest than traditional boxing biopic, this late-year Paramount release is being handled as prestige rather than mainstream fare, but could connect despite itself, particularly among those familiar with Ward.
As a fighter, Ward was known for taking a sustained beating for several rounds, only to come back and knock out his opponents with a well-placed left hook. That would appear to be the model for the screenplay, penned by Scott Silver (“8 Mile”), Paul Tamasy (the “Air Bud” movies) and Eric Johnson (from a story by Tamasy, Johnson and Keith Dorrington), which tracks the punishing setbacks between Micky’s return to boxing and his first title win.
Though Wahlberg is a good decade older than his character, the actor convincingly fills Micky’s shoes from the outset, essaying a less cocksure variation on the dreamer he played in “Boogie Nights,” this time closer to home as a lower-class Massachusetts kid who makes good on a rocky upbringing. (Ward grew up in Lowell, Mass., which served as the film’s primary location, about an hour from Wahlberg’s childhood haunts.) As age gaps go, Bale has the trickier part, playing Micky’s significantly older brother, despite being three years younger than Wahlberg — a feat that involved receding his hairline, thinning a bald spot in back and wearing a most unflattering set of crack-addict teeth.
Dicky, who served as Micky’s idol and trainer, steals the floor from the beginning, talking over his more taciturn half-brother in a television interview and seeing Micky’s early scraps as an extension of his own failed boxing career, the high point of which was an HBO-broadcast bout with Sugar Ray Leonard. HBO is still interested in Dicky as the film opens, only now they’re tracking him for a Lowell-based installment of “America Undercover,” featuring once-promising lives destroyed by drugs.
It’s not insignificant to the look and feel of “The Fighter” that HBO was the one to document this chapter in the siblings’ lives, since the network also rewrote the rules by which prize fights and family sagas are told. With the exception of one slo-mo montage, the matches are depicted like pay-per-view events, cutting between long shots and ringside reactions (as they would on TV, complete with instant-replay capabilities and video-style pixelation) rather than privileged closeups.
The influence of “The Sopranos” and such recent character-driven dramas as “Mad Men” (where, by no mere coincidence, Par featured its first extended preview for “The Fighter”) can also be felt in Russell’s narrative style, which isn’t as clearly plot-driven as the many boxing movies that have come before. Instead, he seems more invested in scenes that reveal his characters’ often-unarticulated insecurities and dreams, as in the television premiere of the HBO expose (based on 1995’s “High on Crack Street”), which allows the director to cycle among his ensemble to observe how all the key players react to public humiliation.
One could argue whether Micky or Dicky is the film’s main character, but there’s no denying that Dicky undergoes the more compelling arc. While Micky faces an oppressive family life and uphill romance with assertive, out-of-his-league bartender Charlene (Amy Adams), Dicky must overcome addiction, narcissism and defeat before he can let his little brother emerge the family champion. And what a family, embodied by overbearing mother Alice (Melissa Leo) and a swarm of harpy sisters.
If “The Fighter” feels like kind of a mess, lurching from one scene to the next as if the film itself has taken a few hits to the head, that’s not entirely a bad thing. Since the story ends well before Micky’s career-defining showdown with Arturo Gatti, it’s just as well that lunatic setpieces allow talents such as Leo — whose wickedly over-the-top turn disguises Alice’s cartoonish two-dimensionality — to upstage anything Micky accomplishes in the ring.
Still, backed by a stellar group of unshowy character actors, the glamour-averse marquee perfs range from Brando-esque mumbling to full-throttle histrionics, with d.p. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s intense handheld shooting style accommodating that range within a single cohesive world, rounded out by tacky, period-specific ’90s production and costume design. As fiery dysfunction goes, “Spanking the Monkey” and “Flirting With Disaster” were clearly just a warm-up for Russell. What’s missing are stakes and soul, with the director’s attention split between working-class elegy and white-trash caricature, but missing the big picture.