The Sunday Review: The Fighter

by Siôn Simon

By coincidence, I re-watched Rocco ei suoi fratelli (Rocco and his brothers) a few weeks before going to see The Fighter. Visconti’s family melodrama had its half century last year. It is one of the best films ever made. Claudia Cardinale is beautiful, Alain Delon even more so. The moral ugliness of the older brother, Simone, is terrible. The pain inflicted and borne for no reason, the need to hurt mixed in with love, tell enduring truths about families and relationships. It is an operatic, Shakespearean film.

The same cannot quite be said of The Fighter. But Mark Wahlberg’s David O. Russell-directed biopic of Micky Ward is another boxing film which is actually about families, not boxing. And, even if it is not quite Rocco, it is a good film.

And the similarities between the triumvirates at the heart of the two films are striking.

In The Fighter, Mark Wahlberg (a pretty face, like Delon, but more gnarled by now than Delon was then) plays the eponymous younger brother. Quiet, kind, and immensely forbearing, he is overshadowed by an older brother who has none of those qualities, but whom he nevertheless idolises. In Visconti’s film, this character is called Rocco; in The Fighter, his name is Micky.

In Rocco, the older brother is Simone. He is a bad man whose moral vacuity inevitably leads to personal and professional decline. Indiscriminately, he betrays, attacks and wounds people, some of whom love him, some of whom he loves. In The Fighter, Christian Bale plays Micky Ward’s half brother, Dick “Dicky” Eklund. Once a second-string professional boxer, he is “the pride of Lowell”, the working-class Massachusetts town amid whose Irish community the film is set. Dicky once fought the great Sugar Ray Leonard and “knocked him down”. He is now a crack addict and petty criminal.

Nevertheless, he trains and manages his talented younger (but not getting any younger) brother, alongside their mother, played by Melissa Leo. The story of whose life, as she tells it to herself and a gaggle of ever-present daughters, revolves around her briefly half-glorious, now ruined, but clearly favourite elder son. The crack addict and the unbalanced mother do not manage the talented younger son with love or care.

In Rocco, the character of Rosaria Parondi, the stubbily bustling matriarch, ostensibly the Madonna to Cardinale’s putana, has always seemed to me the most evil in the film. She is mother to a monster, but chooses not to see. She licences and protects him, no matter the cost to whomever else, including her other children.

Melissa Leo’s character is not quite so bad, but she is cut from the same cloth. She is a bad parent and a bad person. Micky is too dutiful to see it that way, though, which helps to make for a good film.

Performances are good across the board. Some have derided Bale’s crack-addicted has-been as over-the-top, but he is favourite to win the best supporting actor oscar. Amy Adams – as the redemptive girlfriend, of which there is no equivalent in Rocco­, but there is in the first half of Raging Bull – also picks up a best supporting actress nomination. But the favourite is Melissa Leo, for her part in this film. Russell gets a best director nomination and the Fighter is nominated for best film, but these latter two are rank outsiders.

Regardless of whether they accurately predict the oscars, the odds reflect the reality very well: The Fighter is a very good – though not a great – film, well written and directed, with some outstanding performances.

One of the Shakespearean things about Rocco is the comedy: both in its tone and style, and in the way it is inserted into the narrative. It seems unsurprising, in which case, that there should be such a similar strand in The Fighter. Except for the Gulf war drama, Three Kings, The Fighter’s director, David O. Russell, was previously best known for comedies such as Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster and I heart Huckabees.

One meets so few David O. Anythings in one’s life (I have never met one), that I have always assumed that journeyman film director, David O. Russell, styled himself so in self-conscious tribute to cinematic legend, David O. Selznick. And, sure enough, it was Selznick who first discovered Alain Delon, offering a him a Hollywood contract, which Delon later cancelled in favour of continuing to be French.

But this is Mark Wahlberg’s film. A fan and friend of Micky Ward, whose tough Massachusetts upbringing he shared, Wahlberg spent years getting it made, going through slews of putative co-stars (Brad Pitt), directors (Scorcese, Aronofsky) and writers along the way. His name won’t be on any of the Oscars it wins, but morally and artistically, as well as part-financially, Wahlberg owns the film.

His is an understatedly muscular and authentic performance, and his is the driving intelligence behind this muscular and authentic film. Rocco is a black, bleak film, the promise of redemption coming only from future generations. The Fighter is quite the reverse. It is heart-warming, but without being schmaltzy or trite. You gotta love it.

Final note for those who hate boxing: another thing that The Fighter shares with Rocco (judged by the standards of its day) is the dispassionate verisimilitude of the fight scenes. They don’t glory in the violence or ham up the pathos. Certainly, there is blood and violence, but boxing-haters are not likely, I don’t think, either to be morally offended, or to feel compelled, more than once or twice, to turn their heads.

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