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Film Review

The Fighter

All across New England are towns with huge abandoned brick mill buildings, staggering in scale, looming almost as a taunting reminder that these places used to be vibrant economic communities. Industry and jobs first moved south for cheaper nonunion labor, then overseas. Now many of these towns are economic backwaters, with jobs scarce, drugs endemic, and decaying housing. It's part of the sad story of the decline of American industry, repeated in not just New England, but throughout the mid West. It is as if Appalachia moved north, and it is an American tragedy. People struggle hard and family is important. In fact, family is everything, but sometimes more of a burden than an asset. When we think of the underclass, we tend to think black. But there is a growing white underclass, and not just in Appalachia. Many used to be working class, but with jobs vanishing, some have slipped into near poverty. At least two recent films, "The Town" and "Winter's Bone", both fine films, have used this culture as a setting, possibly reflecting a national anxiety about our country. There is also a tradition of boxing films, most recently "Million Dollar Baby", but also "Rocky" and "Raging Bull".

And now, David Russell (Three Kings) has combined the two genres and directed a very fine film, "The Fighter", which is based on an actual Lowell, Massachusetts, family of two brothers and their five sisters (at least), headed by what must be the most ferocious mother on the planet, played by Melissa Leo. Her children and her husband are all intimidated, and the daughters function as a frightening Greek chorus. The brothers, Micky Ward (played by Mark Wahlberg) and Dickie (played by Christian Bale) are both boxers. Dickie, the older of the two, was briefly famous for knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard, although some said that Leonard actually slipped. Dickie was a good boxer until he became hooked on crack, but continues to train his younger brother. Dickie is erratic, to say the least, mostly stoned and rarely arriving at the gym on time. The BBC is doing a documentary on his career, he thinks, but the topic, obvious to all but him, is crack addiction in America. He is tragic yet has that intense family loyalty. He is the hero of the neighbor, and the scene of the two brothers walking down the street in Lowell, triumphantly greeting everyone, is one of the great scenes of American life. He and his mother act as Micky's agent, but book him against heavier boxers. Of course Micky loses. Despite all this, family is everything, Micky remains intensely loyal to his older brother, and won't get a new trainer. The irony is that Micky is such a good boxer, yet so passive to the depredations of his family. Then he meets a very hot female bartender, played by Amy Adams, who begins to change everything. This woman is tough, a match for Micky's mother.

"The Fighter" is bursting with energy, and the pacing almost exhausting. This is a gritty, highly realistic look at working class life as well as inside the gym and ring. The performances are outstanding: Wahlberg, Bale, and Leo are all giving what must be the best acting of their careers. You hardly recognize Bale because he has lost so much weight. A fascinating and not pleasant back story is that Mark Wahlberg grew up in a blue collar family in Dorchester (Boston), was a crack addict, and was in and out of jail as a teenager and young adult for serious assaults, including one that left a man blinded. Several of his sisters also went to jail. So he knows the territory well and followed the real Micky Ward's career. Apparently, Wahlberg was instrumental in getting this film made and had the cooperation of the Ward family.

Although it sounds like a guy film, it really isn't. "The Fighter" is a great American story, with first rate camera work and editing, and some of the most accomplished acting you will see this year. Easily made my ten best list, and surely will have a host of Academy nominations. Playing widely, including the Kabuki. And here's to a good, good New Year, filled with more great films.

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