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There’s no real sane or logical reason why anyone would want to become a boxer. After all, with the exception of the Jackass crew, how many people do you know that would be willing to get punched in the face for a career. People who box have completely different mindsets than most of us. They have what most psychiatrists would call an unhealthy need to win and succeed (not to mention probably a little hint of masochism). Pugilists are true characters and it’s because of that fact that the greatest boxing movies aren’t about boxing at all. Matches are plot devices and metaphors that help inform the story and build the protagonist outside of the ring. This concept isn’t lost on director David O. Russell in his film The Fighter.

Set in Massachusetts during the early 1990s, Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) has been training his entire life to become a boxer with little success. Trained by his brother, Dickie (Christian Bale) and mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), he’s garnered a reputation as a stepping stone – a boxer who others fight for an easy win so that they can climb the ranks. Following a horrific fight in Atlantic City, Micky begins to question whether his family’s support is what he needs, particularly in light of Dickie’s addiction to crack cocaine. He’s left with a choice: stick by his family or really try and make a go at a legitimate fighting career.

Based on a true story that Wahlberg has been trying to get made for years now, his passion is all put up on the screen. The problem, however, is that the performances by Bale and Leo are so damn good that they manage to upstage him. The actor better known as Batman once again goes through an incredible physical transformation along the lines of what he did for both The Machinist and Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn. While his body may end up paying for it later in life, his gaunt physique shows off his absurd dedication to his craft that shines through the drug-addled older brother living in the glory days. In contrast, it’s Leo’s sharpness that defines Alice, the type-A matriarch. Over-protective, devoted and, occasionally an outrageous bitch, the actress’s best moments are when she is spitting acid at anyone trying to take away her Micky, particularly Micky’s equally acid tongued girlfriend, played by Amy Adams.

While the film is ultimately character driven, that doesn’t mean that Russell hasn’t done a phenomenal job filming the scenes in the ring. Shot like an HBO boxing special, you almost forget that you are watching a movie and not an actual sporting event. What makes these scenes even greater, though, is that because the audience has spent so much time with the protagonist and understand the character so well, they actually begin to have a visceral reaction and cheer on the hero with every great punch and dodge.

Only adding to the film is the soundtrack, which is jam packed with great 80s tunes that, all on their lonesome, raise the film’s energy levels. Tracks like “Here I Go Again” by Whitesnake, “Back In The Saddle” by Aerosmith and “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” by The Rolling Stones not only pick up the audience, but also helps the story establish itself as period piece. If there’s any complaint, it would be about the song “How You Like Me Now” by The Heavy because of its anachronistic nature, but it’s used so damn well that it’s hard to complain.

The movie, of course, isn’t without its faults as some moments feel a bit clichéd, but the truth is that they were ultimately dedicated to the fighter, whose style was to exhaust his opponent before coming on strong at the end (just like every great underdog). Excellently balancing tones and evoking superb performances from each one of his actors, director David O. Russell has crafted an awesome boxing film.

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