Critical Mass: 'The Fighter'
What would Oscar season be without a boxing movie? In 1976, there was "Rocky," a best picture winner. In 1980, there was "Raging Bull," which topped multiple critics' lists that year. In 2001, there was "Ali," a bit of a disappointment. But then in 2004, we got "Million Dollar Baby," which went on to win the award for best picture.
This year, we have "The Fighter," director David O. Russell's third collaboration with star Mark Wahlberg and the first time the director has made a film not based on his own script. And though those who have only seen the trailer may wail, "Another boxing movie?," the critics are nearly unanimous in their assurances that this one is worth seeing.
Take The Times' own Kenneth Turan, for instance. His distaste for some of the colorful characters in the life of "Irish" Mickey Ward (Wahlberg) left him initially thinking this would be another turkey. But by the final bell his mind had been changed. He cautions would-be viewers, "the film is developing strong reasons for doing things this off-putting way but it makes for heavy going in the early days."
Slate's Dana Stevens tries a different tactic, since she, too, obviously went into this film with the hard-earned skepticism of someone who's seen too many uplifting boxing movies. After the usual positive review, she wraps things up with a line you're more likely to hear from an infomercial pitchman than a film critic: "If you're still not convinced that you should see yet another uplifting sports film, let me try one more angle: 'The Fighter' is worth seeing less for its well-told inspirational story than for what you might call its emotional texture."
The New York Times' A.O. Scott also feels he's been down this path many times before, as he writes in his opening: "With the possible exception of the romantic comedy, no film genre is more strictly governed by conventions — or enslaved by clichés, if you prefer — than the boxing picture. Something similar might be said about reviews of boxing pictures, so here goes." He then allows himself to indulge in enough boxing lingo to make Gene Shalit proud: "With solid bodywork, clever feints and tremendous heart, it scores at least a TKO, by which I mean both that it falls just short of overpowering greatness — I can’t quite exclaim, 'It’s a knockout!' "
The reviewer at IrishCentral.com, Cahir O'Doherty, gushes over the film, writing, "Thanks to a tight script, flawless direction and some career-best performances from the cast, 'The Fighter' actually turns out to be much better than the sum of its parts." And to drive home how different it is from its boxing forebears, says, "Sylvester Stallone never made a film this affecting or this raw."
And from Mickey's home state of Massachusetts, the Boston Herald serves up what can only be called a split decision. A cursory glance at James Verniere's review shows that he's given it a B+, high praise indeed. But then try reading the review, which begins: "A cheesy 'Raging Bull'-'Rocky' mashup served on a hot buttered bulkie roll, David O. Russell’s 'The Fighter' is Scorsese-lite with Mark Wahlberg’s boxer Mickey Ward flanked by two performances that are as much about overacting as acting."
Wouldn't you hate to read what he has to say about a movie he really didn't like?
--Patrick Kevin Day
Photo: Mark Wahlberg and Amy Adams star in "The Fighter." Credit: Paramount Pictures