With Christian Bale, sometimes you aren't sure whether you're watching great acting or overacting. In The Fighter, Bale's adherence to method acting is certainly pronounced, and it nearly blows the rest of the picture out of the water.
Very loosely based on the real-life family drama of boxer Micky Ward and his brother, a former contender named Dicky Eklund, The Fighter depicts an up-and-comer and a has-been, shackled together by the sport and the bloodline they share. Fans of the sweet science know Ward's story already, but they may not know that Eklund once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard. Or maybe Leonard slipped. Either way, it was Eklund's crowning achievement, but everything went downhill after that, thanks largely to crack and prison.
To bring Eklund to life, Bale pulled his extreme-weight-loss gambit out of mothballs. Here, Bale isn't as freakish as he was in The Machinist, but he's also not as in the pocket as in Rescue Dawn, which featured one of Bale's more fearless yet understated portrayals to date. During the period of his life covered here, Eklund was not only battling crack addiction on a daily basis; his struggle was being chronicled by HBO for a 1995 documentary.
As Ward, Mark Wahlberg relies, as he usually does, on his quiet resolve. Rarely does the forceful Wahlberg show up in films (although that Wahlberg did well in The Departed). Because Wahlberg is more reflective here, Bale's performance casts an even larger shadow.
It is actually two supporting actresses who should get the most praise here: Both Melissa Leo (as the brothers' mother) and Amy Adams (as Ward's girlfriend) do more with less—less screen time, less histrionics than Bale, and less fanfare. Leo, an Oscar nominee two years ago for Frozen River, gives every indication of being the type of mother who could raise one severely fractured son and one very indecisive one. Adams continues to show a broadening range, playing a barmaid getting by on street smarts and sass.
The Fighter emerges at the time of year when expectations come pre-packaged: This is a film seeking attention for gold statues, and is primarily hanging its hopes on Bale. It might have a chance there, presumably in the Best Supporting Actor category, but his work is in the service of a film that is more cloying than complex and more hammy than heartfelt, and Bale's effort itself seems almost unnecessarily showy. The events depicted here are also way off chronologically, and that could hurt the movie in the final voting analysis.
It is a suspiciously by-the-numbers production by David O. Russell, the mercurial director of Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees. Something of his nature is absent in The Fighter: It's the first David O. Russell movie in which the director appears to be an observer instead of a guiding influence.
There are two major flaws that stand out. The first is to have Christian Bale go through all the trouble of dropping the weight and studying and training with the manic Dicky Eklund, only to have the character walk away from a terrible addiction. Literally, he just walks away from it. It doesn't offer much of a payoff for the film's primary subplot.
The second real concern is the boxing itself. The obligatory moving-up-the-ranks montage shows absolutely no spirit (and very little fighting, in fact), and the climactic match is loaded with those big, sweeping hooks that look campy even in Rocky movies. They're identifiable by being the exact punches nobody would ever throw in a title fight.
Of course, by that point in the film, haymakers are about the only thing Russell has left.