As someone who is not a fan of boxing or Mark Wahlberg, I went into this film thinking I wasn't going to like it. To my surprise, both boxing and Wahlberg take a back seat in what becomes a powerful family drama. There's probably just enough boxing and Wahlberg to satisfy devotees to each, but if you're not a devotee or even if you don't like either, this film will still win you over.
Wahlberg stars as Micky Ward, the real-life welterweight and former WBU champion from Lowell, Mass., who rose to prominence in the late 1980s and early 90s. He's the younger brother of Dicky Eklund, played by Christian Bale (The Dark Knight and American Psycho). Dicky is himself a former welterweight whose claim to fame was a 1978 fight with Sugar Ray Leonard. That fight didn't lead him anywhere but yet he keeps replaying it like Al Bundy constantly talking up his high school football glory days, despite those days being decades in the past and never achieving him anything since.
Dicky decides to be Micky's trainer, which becomes problematic because Dicky is still dealing with a serious drug addiction. Dicky in fact is a crack addict who at times does a piss poor job of balancing his addiction and being present for Micky. He loves his brother but his substance abuse clearly hurts both of them. Bale is nonetheless magnetic and completely charming in this role.
Bale will probably be what will win over most audiences. Like in his role for The Machinist, Bale delves deep into this character, totally inhabiting him. There's footage at the end of the real Dicky Eklund and it becomes obvious that Bale simply nails this. Obviously, he's portraying Dicky at his worst, at his moments of most embarass and most desperation. Yet, we see Dicky's love for his brother, and while others may question that love, his love for Micky definitely shines through.
Definitely one of the people who comes to question Dicky's love is Charlene Fleming, played by Oscar-nominee Amy Adams (Doubt and Enchanted). Charlene is a waitress that Micky meets at a bar. She's sexy. She's sassy. She's a strong, independent woman who takes no gruff from anyone or anything.
Micky is at first hesitant to approach her. There is a sense that despite being a brute in the boxing ring, Micky is a bit of a baby outside the ropes. He's rather non-confrontational, gentle and more vulnerable emotionally. Micky tries to visit his daughter who doesn't live with him and instead of being overly forceful or demanding, he almost is begging and pleading. When it comes to his career, Micky is more apt to do what his family says even if it goes against what he thinks is best. Charlene enters his life and she helps to change that, to get him not only to fight people in the ring but also in his own family.
Melissa Leo (Frozen River and Treme) plays their mother, Alice. She would almost be a caricature of a Boston, ring-side broad who has the big, puffy hair, the thick accent, the loud-mouth, in-your-face attitude and the overly mothering behavior, but the way that Leo plays this woman negates magically all those stereotypes. There are moments when those stereotypes are reinforced when Alice is with the girls who play her daughters, but those moments are handled with such comedic brilliance that you almost don't mind them.
One scene that highlights this is when Alice and her daughters meet Charlene for the first time, but the whole thing doesn't devolve into some farce. It's a scene that lays down one of the main struggles, not only for Alice but for Micky as well. Alice puts a lot of pressure on her son. The pressure wouldn't be so bad if his family weren't getting him to do things in boxing that weren't good for him, and that even hurt him in ways that weren't fair. It gets to a point that it makes him question giving up boxing, and of giving up this sport he loves.
At the same time, Dicky continually falls into garbage and gets himself into trouble with the law. He's living in somewhat of a delusional state where he can 't see the spiral he's in. Anytime hard reality looks him in the face he charms his way out of it. A poignant example is in that scene with Charlene meeting the family for the first time. Another is when Dicky sings to Alice. Despite his desperate and dire conditions, Dicky puts blinders on and sees only what he wants to see.
It's not until he's forced to look at his life without blinders or pretenses that Dicky is finally ready to change. The fallout from seeing what HBO cameras have captured is so intense that it affects each brother. The result is emotionally powerful, as you watch both Wahlberg and Bale have wordless reactions that tell you so much, if not everything, like seeing a person hit when they get a hard body shot.
Aside from the acting, which is superb and clearly the best thing about this film, I was particularly impressed with the cinematography and editing. Some critics were thrown with the nature of the boxing sequences, which were noticeably brief, but there were three non-boxing scenes that I thought were somewhat outstanding.
The opening scene, which introduces the brothers, was fantastic. Director David O. Russell really gives you a sense of the so-called "Pride of Lowell" but also of Lowell itself. The montage to the song "How You Like Me Now" was energetic and fun. The second scene that boasts the great camerawork and editing in this movie is the one where the brothers are arrested. The third is the near sex scene between Micky and Charlene intercut by the arguing of Alice and her daughters. It's awkward yet communicates this rush of feelings that are undeniable.
If I had any criticism of this movie, it would be some of the boxing talk. I understand that this is a boxing movie and shop talk is absolutely appropriate. As a non-fan and being mostly ignorant of the art and politics of boxing, I was turned off by moments when the dialogue would delve into lingo that only true boxing aficionados would recognize. You're able to get the gist of what people are saying, but at times it seemed like they were speaking a completely foreign language.
Five Stars out Five.
Rated R for language, drug content, some violence and sexuality.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 55 mins.