Is there any new way left to film a boxing scene, or even tell a boxing story? On the evidence of Oscar-winning sleeper hit The Fighter, not really. Based on Lowell, Massachusetts native son Micky Ward’s more-or-less unlikely 1990s climb up the junior welterweight ranks, it’s the old Rocky formula with a little more emotional complication and a little more dirt under the fingernails. The fight sequences are shot on video instead of film, and that’s about as aesthetically edgy as it gets. Raging Bull, at 31 years old, still seems more cutting-edge, partly because it doesn’t grant redemption or absolution to its screwup protagonist or the screwups around him. Also partly because David O. Russell is no Martin Scorsese (but who is? Not even Scorsese, anymore.)
So I can’t get as excited about Fighter as a lot of people do, but there are still plenty of details that make it compelling and moderately moving. The strongest card is Christian Bale's Academy-anointed performance as Dicky Eklund, the title character’s crack-addicted, bull-in-a-china-shop, ex-boxer half-brother. (Or is Dicky the title character?! Discuss!) There’s plenty to say, most of it good, about Bale’s work here. But I’ve been chewing on one issue highlighted by his performance, and equally by Mark Wahlberg’s very different performance as Ward.
To begin with, inspirational true-life sports stories have been a dime a dozen in cinema for a long time, of course, so much so that we (by which I mean “I”) rarely stop to think about the weird relationship between a usually recent real-life event that is already staged for public consumption and often well-documented in visual media, and the slightly removed and somewhat more staged movie based on it. This gets rather surreal in Russell’s film, as one subplot focuses on an HBO documentary crew that followed Dicky Eklund around town for a while sometime in the early ‘90s – so on a few occasions we watch re-staged faux clips from the doc, with Bale presumably mimicking Eklund in scenes that surely still exist with the real Eklund in them. I look forward to the movie about the making of The Fighter wherein, say, Ryan Gosling plays Christian Bale playing Dicky in restaged scenes from the making-of DVD extras.
This all comes to a head, in an understated fashion, right after the close of the movie proper, with a fleeting clip of the real Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund chumming around in a bar somewhere. But for me, there’s a sudden, odd split here – Dicky seems more or less like the guy we’ve been watching for the whole movie, while Micky doesn’t. That’s because Bale as Eklund operates with a quintessential, Method-style total immersion. Wahlberg, on the other hand, plays Mark Wahlberg – or, rather, one of the standard Mark Wahlbergs we tend to get onscreen. (This is not to knock him – he does it very skillfully, as usual, and to strong effect, but more on that below.)
Bale transforms every visible and audible aspect of himself, from body language, accent and pitch of voice down to his weight (he lost a lot of it to simulate a crackhead’s emaciation). I’d bet money he watched the videos of Eklund over and over and practiced in front of a mirror and with a tape recorder to get the jittery, wired-to-explode quality that his model exudes even in the tiny bit of him we see at the end – the certain something that makes you say instantly upon meeting him, “Seems like a good guy, but what is up with him? Maybe I should keep half an eye on him anyway.”
Opposite him, Wahlberg deploys his trademark low-key, bruised machismo. There’s the firm set of his square jaw and the boyish swagger, contrasted with the diffident head movements and furrow of the brow that indicate the world puzzles him and often seems determined to hurt him – the surface toughness with a vulnerable softness underneath. He even gets to break out the working-class MA accent that he usually hides but that often peeps through. This is the guy American moviegoers are familiar with by now as someone you’d want on your side in a fight, but also want to comfort and protect (which might well include cuddling in bed, if you’re oriented that way). It instantly marks out Ward to The Fighter’s audience as the hero, the audience identification figure, in contrast to Eklund, who has his own endearing qualities but from whom you shrink back to a safe distance, maybe the better to shout at him in exasperation. It's a smart double act - Wahlberg lays down a steady bass line that keeps the song on track and moving forward, allowing Bale to weave flashy riffs around him.
The interesting thing is, in the real-life closing clip, the more grounded and successful Ward exhibits many of the same physical and vocal mannerisms as his ex-jailbird sibling, to a degree that startled me (although I find that to be less so in some of the other clips I checked out on YouTube out of curiosity). But Bale dives straight into those traits and uses them to obliterate the actor audiences are familiar with; Wahlberg takes a detour around them to give us a clear view – “Hi, everyone, still me.” Does that mean Bale is a better actor? Possibly, depending on what you mean by “better.” But possibly not – Markie Mark has the right tools to get the job done, and he does it. It’s a fine example of the use of a star persona to shape audience expectations and identification, even if it isn’t the kind of showoffy acting best calculated to get one a nude statuette.
[Here's a lengthy, interesting interview with director Russell, Bale, Wahlberg and others of the principal cast, if you want to see people who know what they're really talking about address some of what I'm rambling about above.]