The Fighter: Nondescript Drama with a False Climax

Recently I took a reprieve from my usual lineup of Schwarzenegger films and Seinfeld reruns to view a movie that I’d slotted on my cinematic hit list years ago but had lacked all conviction to actually sit my ass down and view. That film was 2010’s The Fighter, which stars Mark Wahlberg as a man with a Boston accent and Christian Bale as a person with intense emotional problems and possibly bulimia. Oh, there’s also some boxing in it too, I guess.

I did not love this movie – which apparently puts me in a minority group with less representation than Asian stand-up comedians – but neither did I think it was necessarily bad. I’ll concede it was competently made (until the finale – we’ll get to that), well-acted, and presumably well-written (it can be hard to tell through all that wicked pissa Bostonspeak, yah suh). My immediate problem with The Fighter is that it represents a crossover between two genres that I take greater pains to avoid than personal interactions with the elderly – sports-related movies and dysfunctional family dramas.

Sports movies in particular stir little in me, especially those involving football and boxing, because there’s generally only two possible directions the plot can go. Either the luckless protagonist/team will prevail against all odds and win the big game/match in a ‘triumph of the human spirit’ sort of tale, or said protagonist/team will lose after putting up one hell of a fight, which is still a ‘triumph of the human spirit’ tale but with a moral victory twist, and therefore pointless.

In either case I feel very little because the stakes simply aren’t important enough to make me care. It’s easy to care whether or not John McClane will defeat Hans Gruber, because there’s more at stake in Die Hard than the survival of everyone in Nakatomi Plaza – there’s also the fate of McClane’s marriage, which serves as the film’s emotional anchor. On the flipside, it doesn’t matter to me whether or not Rocky Balboa will defeat Apollo Creed, because even if he doesn’t prevail his life still goes on. I realize this perspective is sort of irregular, but even as a child I lacked that competitive edge that drove the other neighborhood boys into the sports realm, and still today I can’t say I’m bothered over who wins or loses a game, be it the Super Bowl or a Risk match. I mean really, if the worst-case scenario in a competition is losing and then feeling sad about it, that’s just not enough to get me invested.

Maybe I just don’t like playing games.

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The only element then that piqued my interest in The Fighter was the foreknowledge that the boxing aspect was mostly a backdrop for interpersonal drama surrounding Mark Wahlberg’s character. Fine, I thought – emotional stakes are something I can get invested in. Besides, I’m usually down for a slog through some human misery, especially if it promises to end in tragedy (I liked Romeo and Juliet because they died ironically). Then I finally started watching The Fighter and realized that the interpersonal drama I’d been baited with was centered entirely on family – which made me feel like my boss promised me a hefty Christmas bonus if I agreed to work on Saturday and then handed me a thirty-pound fruitcake.

Not that there’s anything wrong with family dramas, per se – The Sopranos is more about family drama than gangster activities and it’s my all-time favourite television series. Moreover, some wonderful comedy films like Little Miss Sunshine and The Royal Tenenbaums depict dysfunction with a sort of lightheartedness that offsets any real tension. However, my feelings toward purely dramatic films of this nature are that they’re dour and tedious affairs that are more emotionally draining than entertaining. As with the sports film, the plot can only take one of two avenues – the family in question will either fail to settle their differences and fracture completely in an Oscar-worthy “I hate you all” scene, or they’ll resolve everything in an Oscar-worthy “I actually love you all” scene and subsequently gather around for a group hug. Either way I’m not interested – probably because it triggers traumatic memories of emotionally-scarring Thanksgiving dinners.

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So despite having so little interest in The Fighter I could rant about it for a page and a half, I still somehow found myself nestled in my posh armchair on a Tuesday evening with a healthy dose of Tangle Ridge poured into a pilfered IHOP mug drinking it in (The Fighter… not the Tangle Ridge… though I did drink that in too… anyway). Looking back, I strongly suspect I only queued it up in the first place in a subconscious effort to knock it off my hit list. Come to think of it, I’m not sure how this even got on my hit list… perhaps a race of mischievous hit list-altering space gnomes hacked into my phone and slipped it in between North by Northwest and Zardoz (which may also explain how it was somehow scrawled in my notepad app in a glittering pink crayon font).

Anyway, the plot – actor-man Christian Bale is a washed-up crack-head who was once a big deal in the boxing business before becoming elderly as all athletes do at age 26, and Mark Wahlberg is his younger brother who can’t seem to escape from Bale’s emaciated shadow. Both brothers were/are boxers and both were/are managed by their mother, who clearly has Bale’s best interests in mind despite his chronic degenerateness. She only arranges fights for Wahlberg that he has no earthly hope of winning, because in Massachusetts the development of your child’s self-worth is apparently exhausted on the firstborn and then gives way to contempt. Mark Wahlberg is tired of being thrown under a bus every time his big brother scratches his bum and decides to blaze his own trail in life. He begins by dating Amy Adams, who wants people to respect her intelligence despite having a tramp stamp, and ends by deciding to make a name for himself in the ring, which regrettably was not “Funky Bunches.” There is a lot of yelling and nasty name-calling and punching and plate-throwing and f-bombs as everyone learns how to get along. Oh, there’s also some boxing in it too, I guess.

So the long and short of The Fighter is that Mark Wahlberg is fighting (ahhhh…) to have his emotional needs satisfied and garner some familial support while finally making something of himself – not necessarily in the ring but in life, which incidentally is the same thing he was attempting in Boogie Nights while having sex on camera for Burt Reynolds. However, his family is too self-interested to consider putting his needs first and instead seems content to bicker over who among them is least-hated. His mother hates Amy Adams, Amy Adams hates Christian Bale, and Christian Bale hates… the ability to enunciate? Oh, there’s also some boxing—whatever.

All this familial nonsense comes to a head at the end of the second act when Mark Wahlberg finally snaps and tells everyone that he’s tired of them thinking only about themselves and that they should start thinking about him for a change. Everyone has a sobering moment of self-reflection and realizes that he’s right – it’s his turn to be self-absorbed for a while, dammit. His loved ones finally rally around him and instantly decide to get along, with the group hug scene presumably being a director’s cut exclusive, and Mark Wahlberg goes on to win the big match before The Credits roll out of my limp hand and across the floor into a corner.

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I named my IHOP mug “The Credits”

Since I clearly loved this movie so much, you may be asking why I’m bothering to write about it at all. Well firstly, dear reader, there’s nothing quite like having something in my immediate vicinity to hold in contempt to truly lift my spirits after a bad day at the office. Secondly, I actually did start to find The Fighter interesting from the emotional climax scene onward, because it was at this point that the movie effectively ended.

But then it inexplicably kept going for about more fifteen minutes – transitioning to a hurried training montage and leading into Mark Wahlberg’s career-making big match, which he wins because this is the slightly less pointless ‘triumph of the human spirit’ tale. Here’s the thing, though – the point of The Fighter wasn’t Mark Wahlberg striving to win the big match, it was him fighting to have his needs met by his family. He wanted to distance himself from his brother’s legacy and stand on his own two feet as an individual with his own wants, needs, dreams, and goals fulfilled. As soon as his family recognized this and put their own agendas aside for him the story immediately ended because all character arcs were instantly culminated. Whether or not he wins the big match after that is completely irrelevant because the real fight was making himself heard and the real ring was his mother’s living room. In fact, the movie could have ended with him heading into the ring while his family cheered on in unity and then faded to black with some title cards revealing the outcome – but Paramount probably wouldn’t swing for that because it would have pissed off all the Rocky fans.

And now that I’ve made that compelling observation, my article is effectively over. Thanks for reading, for once, you dumb schmucks! Instead of bowing out gracefully, I’m going to borrow stylistically from The Fighter’s script and keep going for another half-page to make another point that really needn’t be made, but I’ll make anyway because Tangle Ridge is officially behind the wheel and it’s flipping off all the other drivers.

The second most interesting aspect of The Fighter for me, beyond the premature emotional climax (of which 1 in 5 films suffer), was the odd cinematography involved in shooting Wahlberg’s final match. Not that I’m an expert on art direction or even boxing for that matter, but as a general rule an effective fight scene should get up close and personal to the contenders so the viewer can tangibly feel every hit, personally experience the hero’s mounting efforts, and physically catch every sweat bead dripping from their every pore. The viewer should feel like they’re in the ring next to the hero, throwing every punch with their own fists and absorbing every strike with their own flesh – you know, standard immersion stuff that makes for effective cinema.

Oddly, The Fighter’s big match is primarily shot from a distance and filtered like it’s being viewed on 90’s cable television, making the viewer feel like they’re tuning in at home on their own rear-projection television sets (which I suppose some of them may very well be doing…). Interspersed between these grainy, mid shots of the ring are shots of the supporting characters’ reactions as they themselves watch the match from their own homes or the ringside. This estranges the viewer from the action even further, because we’re not in the ring getting up close and personal anymore – we’re merely spectating through a screen, which reminds me painfully of another movie from a few years back.

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While I realize this was a stylistic choice employed by director David O. Russell to simulate what it would have been like to watch a loved one’s match back in the 90’s, it unfortunately created a jarring disconnect with the viewer – instead of feeling included in the viewing experience, we feel removed from the action and don’t get a sense of how Mark Wahlberg is supposed to be feeling. But then again, since his arc wrapped fifteen minutes prior to the fight, we are left to assume he probably feels just peachy because his big brother’s finally standing in his corner and his girlfriend and mother suddenly get along perfectly.

To close, the only aspect of The Fighter I found remotely interesting was its finale, because it was redundant, ineffective, and alienating. Perhaps I’m being too snooty here. I can’t really say this is a bad movie, because it isn’t. People who enjoy boxing flicks and family drama will probably highly enjoy it, but me, personally, it just wasn’t my cup of tea. To be fair, few things besides an actual cup of tea really are my cup of tea.

Begrudgingly, 6/10

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