(2010) True Sports Drama (Paramount) Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, Jack McGee, Mickey O’Keefe, Melissa McMeekin, Bianca Hunter, Erica McDermott, Jill Quigg, Dendrie Taylor, Kate O’Brien, Frank Renzulli. Directed by David O. Russell
We all have our burdens to bear in life, and sometimes those burdens are our own families. They may mean well and have our interests at heart, but their own demons sometimes get in the way. There are even occasions where their only interests in their heart are their own.
Micky Ward (Wahlberg) is a prize fighter whose career has stalled. He has entrusted his training to his brother Dicky Eklund (Bale), himself a fighter whose moment in the sun came when he knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard during a 1978 fight. The pride of Lowell, Massachusetts has sunk quite a ways since then, becoming addicted to crack. However, he has high hopes of a comeback, and HBO has sent a documentary crew to film it.
In the meantime, Micky has a fight to take care of and he has prepared diligently for it, no thanks to Dicky who is often a no-show. Their mother Alice (Leo) is their manager, and she is not so much a typical manager as she is a force of nature to be reckoned with. She is sort of like Mamie van Doren gone to seed, a blonde bombshell who smokes like a fiend and wears too-tight pants and too-high heels, not unlike a moll in a mobster movie. Nobody in the business really takes her seriously, although nobody else in the family – including the seven sisters of the boys (acting as something of a drinking-chain smoking- bickering Greek chorus – is willing to say so.
Micky’s dad (McGee) thinks his son has the talent to go farther with better management; so does family friend Mickey O’Keefe (playing himself) who is also a Lowell cop. So does Micky’s new girlfriend, comely barmaid Charlene (Adams) who is derisively labeled an “MTV Girl” by Micky’s sisters because she had the temerity to attend college. The only one who doesn’t seem to think so is Micky himself.
That’s until the fight Micky has been preparing for collapses when his opponent gets the flu and Micky is forced to fight someone 20 pounds heavier, much stronger and much faster than he is. Of course, the results are predictable; Micky gets his ass handed to him. Disappointed and ashamed, he hides out in his house, seriously thinking of getting out of the fight game.
In the meantime, Dicky runs afoul of the law trying to raise some money to get Micky trained (typically for Dicky, he tries scamming local guys into giving them his wallets by impersonating a police officer arresting them in a prostitution sting). During the course of the arrest, overzealous police officers shatter Micky’s hands, ending any opportunity for a fight.
As the months pass by and Micky’s hand slowly heals, his relationship with Charlene gets stronger while he continues to drift further away from his mom and Dicky. Micky finds himself a new manager and begins training with O’Keefe, under the condition that Alice and Dicky not be involved with his career. As for Dicky, his life sinks to a new low when he discovers the documentary that he thought was about his comeback was in fact about how drugs destroyed his promising career and his life. The rift in the family starts to heal when Dicky gives Micky some advice for an upcoming fight that turns out better than their original plan formulated by O’Keefe and his manager (Renzulli).
Micky begins to go on a winning streak and eventually wins himself a title shot. He would seem to have it all, but can he continue to keep his family out of the picture or can he figure out a way to reconcile everyone and in doing so, become the champion he was always meant to be?
This is based on a true story, which in itself is kind of amazing because Micky’s family is not portrayed in a terribly flattering light, but assuming that the events are as depicted here, you have to admire the Wards and Eklunds for allowing this to be filmed as it was. The family is torn apart by drugs and by their own ability to see past their own self-interest. Alice is more about being the center of attention, and shamelessly favors Dicky over Micky. Micky acts somewhat numb, unable to stand up for himself or even voice dissent until he finally gets the support from Charlene he desperately needs.
Bale, who has done stellar work in the past, gets a role he can sink his teeth into. He lost a considerable amount of weight to get the gaunt junkie look of Dicky Eklund, and utilizes a rubber-limbed, rubber-faced demeanor that is half-clown, half-tragedy. We never get a sense of what Dicky was like before the drugs destroyed him but we do see him destroyed, unable to pull himself out of the mire until he gets clean in prison. Bale is a front-runner for a supporting actor role come Oscar time, and deservedly so. This may be the role that finally wins him the statue.
Wahlberg is an actor who can be depended on to do a solid job and occasionally (as in The Departed) stellar work. He almost never turns in a bad performance and here, he is given a role which is far from easy. It’s not that Micky is a complicated role; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Micky is actually a little bit boring, and yet he needs to be the centerpiece of the film. It’s hard to have someone so without inertia at the forefront of a movie, but Wahlberg manages to make the character one we can root for due to his natural charisma and likability.
It doesn’t hurt to have two of the better actresses in Hollywood in the supporting cast as well. Ever since Leo attracted notice for her work in Frozen River, I can’t say as she’s performed poorly in roles supporting (as this one is) or starring. She imbues Alice with shades of both fragility and strength, overwhelming her younger son at the same time desperately seeking approval. It’s a brilliant performance and deserves Oscar notice as well, although it may not be as slam dunk a nomination as Bale’s.
Amy Adams is a terrific actress who can assail anything from dramas to comedies to musicals and pull them off with equal skill. Here, she is at her sexiest and her most vulnerable. She is also strong and able to stand up for herself in a tough crowd, both at the bar where she works and among the Eklund women who are a formidable bunch themselves.
Director Russell resists the temptation to drag this movie into sports movie clichés and treacle, making instead something that resonates powerfully rather than going for cheap chest-pounding scenes of sports triumph. Micky Ward’s pursuit of the championship takes a back seat to his pursuit of his own identity, out of the considerable shadows of his mother and brother and that’s what makes this movie so good.
REASONS TO GO: The performances are all top notch and in Bale’s case, Oscar-worthy. The story is compelling and inspiring without being smarmy.
REASONS TO STAY: The boxing scenes could have been better.
FAMILY VALUES: One of the HBO cameramen in the film was played by Richard Farrell, who directed the original HBO documentary High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell that depicted Dicky Eklund.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There’s a hidden Mickey in the film; check out the back of Sam’s motorcycle helmet.
HOME OR THEATER: This works as well on the home screen as it does at the multiplex.
FINAL RATING: 9/10
TOMORROW: The Tourist