Everyone loves a good underdog story; they've been a staple of cinema since the very beginning. The perpetual struggle to overcome adversity and strive for greatness is something that we can all relate to, and when told with heart and talent, these tales can offer unusually perceptive insight into the human condition. The world of sports in particular is rife with inspirational stories about athletes who have beaten the odds to become legends. The physical and mental drive needed to succeed on the gridiron, on the court, or in the ring have long provided fodder for ambitious screenwriters, actors, and filmmakers seeking to gain a better understanding of what really drives us to get back up and keep on swinging when it looks for all the world like we've gone down for the count.
Inspired by the remarkable true-life story of "Irish" Micky Ward and his unpredictable brother, Dicky Eklund -- a former welterweight whose career was KO'd by crack -- director David O. Russell's intimate sports drama The Fighter succeeds in engaging the viewer on a number of levels thanks to a nuanced screenplay from scribes Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson, and some impressive performances by an immensely talented cast.
On July 18, 1978, Lowell, Massachusetts boxer Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) cemented his status as "The Pride of Lowell" by knocking down boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard. But while Sugar Ray fell to the canvas that day, volatile Dicky was about to fall even further. Just seven years after that fateful fight, Dicky was too wasted to lace up a pair of gloves -- a tragic victim of the crack epidemic. However, his younger brother, Micky (Mark Wahlberg), still had plenty of fight, as well as the self-discipline needed to succeed where his older sibling had failed. Under Dicky's training, Micky made an impressive debut as an amateur boxer in the early '80s, thanks in no small part to his devastating left hook. Still, he was frequently looked down upon by fans, trainers, and other professional boxers as a "stepping stone" fighter -- a professional loser whose only purpose as a pugilist was to prop up boxers who were destined for bigger and better bouts. In the aftermath of a last-minute lineup change that resulted in Micky suffering a brutal defeat, the dejected boxer gradually began to realize that in order to reach his full potential he would need to begin training with true professionals. Not only would that decision strain his relationship with his mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), who had always served as his manager, but also his brother Dicky, who would later become the subject of an HBO documentary about crack addiction, in addition to receiving a stiff prison sentence for a host of criminal infractions. Nonetheless, with the support of his father, George (Jack McGee); his girlfriend, Charlene (Amy Adams); and a new business-savvy manager, Micky would soon be on his way to making boxing history with his legendary trilogy of fights against Canadian boxer Arturo Gatti.
Of course, boxing isn't the only sport with a rich history on the silver screen, but with talented actors like Anthony Quinn, Jack Palance, Burt Lancaster, and Robert De Niro having all stepped into the ring at various points in their film careers, it may be the one that consistently draws the biggest talent. Frequently hailed as one of the most gifted actors of his generation, Bale's magnetic performance as motor-mouthed crack-addict Dicky is so compelling that although initial assumptions may lead us to believe "The Fighter" of the film is Micky, it could, in fact, just as well be his less distinguished sibling.
The three screenwriters skillfully tell both characters' stories without shortchanging either one. But while Bale sinks his teeth into the meatier role, it's his interaction with Wahlberg that gives the film true heart. The complex balance of sibling rivalry and support is present from the very opening shot, and both actors walk the line between those two extremes with confidence and charisma. And the talent extends to the supporting cast: Leo is captivating as the mother who obviously loves both of her sons, yet always seems to gravitate toward the troubled one (a suppressed character trait that boils to the surface in a brilliantly written scene that finds a recently paroled Dicky returning to the gym), and Adams is perfect as the love interest who is bold enough to call out the controlling matriarch and her loyal army of daughters when they threaten to drag Micky down, even if she isn't quite certain how much of their dysfunction she can handle.
Behind the camera, Russell always keeps our attention focused in the right place, giving his actors plenty of room to fully inhabit their characters while enhancing all of the major components that make the screenplay such a compelling piece of writing. His directorial choices once again display his flair for breaking with convention (some comic relief involving Dicky and his sisters may play as a little too broad for some, and the choice to focus on Micky during a crucial pep talk from Dicky in the final fight is at first confounding until we realize where the scene is going), but they're always made with the characters and story in mind, and help distinguish The Fighter from the glut of other similarly themed films. Russell's decision to shoot the boxing matches in the television style adds a sense of urgency to the bouts that keeps us involved even if we already know the outcome, and makes the film equally compelling for boxing fans and newcomers alike.
Stories like the one portrayed in The Fighter help us to realize that, although at times we may feel like all hope is lost, the outcome of a life is never written in stone. For that reason, the film earns a well-deserved spot in the pantheon of inspirational sports underdog films. But while these particular factors ensure that The Fighter works wonderfully within the boundaries of its own particular dramatic subgenre, it's the richly textured performances, thoughtfully balanced screenplay, and assured direction that distinguish it as an all-around great film.