Tuesday, 24 May 2011

The Fighter

Micky Ward.

Despite its important role within British culture, sport has never been nearly as prominent in British movie’s as it has in Hollywood. We seem unable to produce a successful film about our national sport: football, I think The Arsenal Stadium Mystery  (1939) probably qualifies along with The Damned United (2009), and maybe Bend it Like Beckham (2002) or Fever Pitch (1997) or perhaps a drama loosely linked to the sport like Ken Loach’s Looking for Eric does? Admittedly there some very good British sports films including Lindsay Andersons This Sporting Life (1963) a story about Rugby League football which was based on the novel by a former professional rugby league footballer David Storey who also adapted the screen play which gave it a great deal of authenticity. Another is Chariots of Fire (1981) which tells the fact based story of two athletes in the 1924 Olympics, Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish Christian who runs for the glory of God and Harold Abrahams, an English Jew who runs to overcome prejudice. A film that was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won four including Best Picture.

When we look to America it would appear they include any number of sporting activities into movies. For example Pool: The Hustler (1961) and its follow up The Colour of Money (1986). Baseball: The Kevin Costner films Bull Durham (1988) and Field of Dreams (1989) Golf: Caddyshack (1980) and Tin Cup (1986) Horseracing: Seabiscuit (2003) Skiing and Bobsleigh: Downhill Racer (1969) and Cool Running (1993) Ice Hockey: The Paul Newman comedy Slap Shot (1977) National Football League: Blind Side (2009) for which Sandra Bullock won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Motor Racing: Days of Thunder (1990) and Le Mans (1971) starring Steve McQueen and considered to be the most historically realistic representation in the history of motor racing. Wrestling: Mickey Rourke won a BAFTA for Best Leading Actor in 2009’s The Wrestler. If we include bowling then what better film than the Coen Brothers masterpiece The Big Lebowski (1989). But I would warrant an opinion that the best sports films have involved boxing in the story line.

From drama to biopics, boxing has been a subject that movies lovers and critics alike seem to have a great affinity for. The movies are generally a metaphor for the social struggle and for life it self. The best known is probably Martin Scorsese’s ultra violent Raging Bull (1980) certainly one of the best pictures of the eighties. It’s a complex portrait of the self-hating world champion Jake La Motta, a role that brought an Oscar for Robert De Niro who put on weight to play the boxer in decline. The fights are said to be the most brutal ever filmed. This role matched De Niro’s brilliant portrayal of Travis Bickle in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) that has just been re-released and should be in the next RBC programme. Other great pugilistic masterpieces are Robert Rossen (The Hustler) 1947 Body and Soul; it starred John Garfield, one of the great actors of his generation as a corrupt fighter and uses boxing to indict capitalism and the distortions of the American dream. A lot of people connected with this film ended up on Hollywood anti-communist blacklist. Incidentally the fight scenes were shot on roller skates!  The Set-Up (1949) directed by Robert Wise (West Side Story Co-director (1961), The Sound of Music (1965)) has the great Robert Ryan as a washed up fighter trying to regain his self-respect while his manager has done a deal with some local gangster believing that he will lose his next fight Champion (1949) directed by Von Ryan’s Express (1965) director Mark Robson, it starred Kirk Douglas as an ambitious fighter mixed up with corruption.  Then of course we have Rocky (1976), which won three Oscars including best picture, and spawned five sequels.   Although there have been fewer boxing movies in recent years there have been some of note including Ali (2001) the biographical film, directed by Michael Mann, about the boxing icon Muhammad Ali from 1964 to 1974 including his capture of the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston and the George Foreman fight in 1974 documented in the film When We Were Kings (1996). Inspired by another real life fighter James J. Braddock Ron Howard directed Cinderella Man (2005) with Russell Crow playing the boxer. One of my own personnel favourite is Million Dollar Baby (2004) directed by and starring Clint Eastwood in the tale of a 32 year-old women determined to become a great boxer.  Which brings us to tonight’s film. 

Dicky Alice and Micky.
Directed by David O Russell (I Heart Huckabee’s (2004)) The Fighter (2010) is a biographical drama that centres on the life of professional welterweight “Irish” Micky Ward with all the ups and downs, and hopes and disappointments normally associated with a boxer’s life but mainly centres on his dysfunctional family. As well as Ward there’s his older half brother Dicky Eklund a crack head living off the memory of the night he floored Sugar Ray Leonard and now attempting to train his younger brother. There are also seven sisters and Micky's father but mother Alice dominates the family. Mark Wahlberg dedicated over four years of training to obtain the physique to convincingly play Ward. Christian Bale is the older brother another role he had to lose weight for as he did in The Machinist (2003) and Rescue Dawn (2007) but a role that won him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Melissa Leo, whose breakthrough film role was in the 2003 film 21 Grams and she was previously nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in the exceptional Frozen River (2008), plays Alice, mother to both fighters and the seven sisters. She collected an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for this role. Amy Adams (Junebug 2005, Doubt 2008) plays Micky Wards love interest, a tough sexy bar maid who’s not afraid to stand up to Alice.  Time Warner Sports Illustrated dubbed the film ‘the best sports movie of the decade’ while Philip French described this as an ‘actors film’.

It certainly was an actor’s film with great performances from every one involved; Christian Bale and Melissa Leo deserved their Oscars for Best Supporting Actor and Actress respectively but the greatest revelation was Mark Wahlberg, whose early private life must of helped in what is his best performance to date other than possibly The Departed (2006). I was not sure if the title of the film referred to the boxing or the in-fighting within the family something that set this film apart from other movies in the same genre. But the highlight for me had to be the fight scenes, beautifully choreographed and shoot, wonderfully exciting completely mesmerising this viewer who was very nearly shouting verbal support for Ward during the screening. I can honestly say this was a very enjoyable evenings entertainment made even better by a slice of delicious chocolate cake! 

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