The only explanation for the existence of The Fighter—which is cut straight from the carrion of Raging Bull and Rocky—is the Ben Affleck-ian belief that the world can always use another blue-collar tale set among the Boston-area Irish.
The true story of boxer "Irish" Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his trainer and half-brother, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), remains lore in their hometown of Lowell, Mass. But the film is pat and derivative: it's a story of a palooka who transcends his meddlesome family to achieve the sort of greatness that director David O. Russell apparently believes is best shared via film-ending postscripts.
The film opens in 1993 with Dicky, an ex-pugilist turned reprobate and crack addict, acting as trainer to Micky, a once promising Golden Gloves champion who has fallen far enough to be regarded as a stepping stone for young up-and-comers. Micky's career is now poorly served by the chronically high and otherwise absent Dicky, as well as Alice (Melissa Leo), his officious mother and manager. After Dicky is sent to prison, Micky looks to revive his career, a task made easier by the charms of new girlfriend, Charlene (Amy Adams), a rough-and-ready barmaid who possesses just enough book learning to threaten Micky's femullet-sporting half-sisters.
The Fighter is the standard story of the down-and-out fighter looking for one last shot at glory. Unfortunately, the film does not possess sufficient narrative drive, whether inside or outside the ring. Moreover, Russell's penchant for interjecting humor into his narrative, which worked to great effect in Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees, proves distracting here, fostering a tonal inconsistency that constantly uproots any stab at dramatic tension. As comic relief, Russell usually trots out Micky's siblings to play their part in some garish Massachusetts minstrel show.
Adams and Bale—whose lone one-on-one scene late in the film is like a breath of fresh air—are the pros in this bunch, although Bale's widely ballyhooed, sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated turn often feels like a masterwork of mimicry. The true standout, however, is Leo, whose performance conjures a less sadistic, more boisterous version of Jacki Weaver's matriarch in Animal Kingdom.
Still, as The Fighter marches to its feel-good finale, the film's biggest enigma is not only scrubbing Dicky's recent relapse into drugs and crime, but also its virtual omission of Micky's epic fights against Emanuel Burton and Arturo Gatti—three of his four bouts against them were named Ring magazine's Fight of the Year. It's akin to making Raging Bull without mentioning Jake La Motta's bouts with Sugar Ray Robinson.
It took Wahlberg, who also co-produced the film, four years to bring the project to fruition. Unfortunately, the round robin of directors, screenwriters and actors linked to the project exacted a narrative toll. Consequently, The Fighter is a scrappy underdog that remains stuck on the undercard.