The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'The Fighter': David O. Russell finally makes a comeback

December 1, 2010 | 12:54 pm

David_russell There are any number of wonderfully oddball things about "The Fighter," starting with the fact that Mark Wahlberg plays Christian Bale's younger brother in the film, even though Bale is, in reality, nearly three years younger than Wahlberg. But the film, based on a real-life story, is actually a compelling drama about a struggling welterweight fighter named Mickey Ward, played by Wahlberg, who finds himself largely struggling to escape the death grip of his dysfunctional family, which includes a scarily in-it-for-herself mother, played by the marvelous Melissa Leo, and a crack addict half-brother (Bale), a boxer himself until he fell in love with the pipe.

Bale's character is based on Dick Eklund, who probably got less attention for his boxing career than for an HBO documentary, "High on Crack Street," which followed Eklund and his coke-addicted pals around as their lives spiraled out of control. The HBO doc is re-created in the film, which gives us a chance to see how far Bale's character has fallen from his past glories, which included a fight where he once managed to knock down Sugar Ray Leonard. 

"The Fighter" almost never got made, languishing at Paramount until Relativity's Ryan Kavanaugh put up roughly $25 million to bankroll the picture. Due out Dec. 10, the film will soon, no doubt, be overwhelmed by the usual awards-season hoopla, especially for its great performances. But if anyone deserves a pat on the back, it's director David O. Russell, who keeps the story on the rails when a lesser talent might have allowed it to drift into sentimental bio-pic territory. In fact, for me, the real comeback story of the film revolves around Russell, who was part of the late 1990s generation of breakthrough filmmakers after hitting pay dirt with such early films as "Flirting With Disaster" and "Three Kings."

Unfortunately, Russell flamed out after he became better known for his hot-headed on-set behavior (including a spectacular row with George Clooney on "Three Kings") than for his directing ability. His last major film was "I Heart Huckabees," a 2004 flop. Since then, he's circled a variety of projects that never happened and started filming one picture that he walked away from during production when the movie's backers ran out of money. Russell ended up with the worst sort of Hollywood reputation, best known as a gifted filmmaker who was more trouble than he was worth, especially once people began to believe that he couldn't direct a film that could make any money.

I don't know how much cash "The Fighter" will make, but I'm betting it gets terrific reviews, which should propel it into serious Oscar best-picture consideration. Best of all, it serves as a reminder that Russell hasn't lost his cinematic punch. He's like a fighter who's managed to take a flurry of left hooks -- some of them self-inflicted -- and still somehow stayed on his feet.  

-- Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Mark Wahlberg, left, with David O. Russell on the set of the film "The Fighter." Credit: Jojo Whildren / "The Fighter" LLC