In Our Opinion

MARK WAHLBERG’S THE FIGHTER AND BOXING IN CINEMA. ROUND ONE.

By • Dec 26th, 2010 •

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Boxing. The brutal sport. Known as the poor man’s way out of the ghetto.

Its combatants bear the repercussions of the devastating onslaught of physical abuse. Whereas some abhor the sport, voicing an outcry to decree a ban, others praise its combatants, giving rise to icons that are heralded as a paladin for a particular ethnic group.

Does boxing slake our animalistic urges? In its simplest terms, one must bash the head of another, put him down for the count, and make him submit to the victor. What is the appeal? Are boxers a proxy for the humble and meek masses?

Boxing movies have been around since the earliest days of cinema. Thomas Edison filmed men boxing on June 14, 1894 at his Black Maria Studios entitled, LEONARD-CUSHING FIGHT, many other Edison boxing films followed. 116 years later, after films like ROCKY, CINDERELLA MAN, THE GREAT WHITE HOPE, THE SET-UP, RAGING BULL, KID GALAHAD, FAT CITY, MILLION DOLLAR BABY, and THE CHAMP, the latest film about the boxing world is THE FIGHTER.

30 year sports business professional Greg Marotta offers his perspective. “Boxing IS Human Drama. It will continually be appealing to filmmakers because boxing offers a metaphor of real life. More than any sport, boxing presents life as a quest, a journey, a search for truth. When the bell rings there are no timeouts, no substitutions, no second string. It’s a mano a mano struggle to the finish, truth be told.”

A tough sport demands tough men. An atmosphere of negativity hovers over the type of male that steps into the ring. Rough types, criminals, kids careening down the wrong track don boxing gloves. In an instance of art imitating life, RUNAWAY TRAIN has a boxing scene that takes place in prison. The boxer is actor Danny Trejo in his first movie role. Trejo was a councilor after being incarcerated as a result of a childhood filled with criminal activity and drug use. With his signature tats and menacing demeanor, Trejo was an inmate in San Quentin, and its boxing champ. Most recently, James Toback’s documentary, TYSON, delves deep into boxer-turned-actor, Mike Tyson. The former heavyweight champion reveals a stormy childhood, prison horror, and the trepidations of stepping into the ring. These guys are furthest from the Errol Flynn boxing character in the 1942 film, GENTLEMAN JIM. Although Mickey Ward is THE FIGHTER’s main character, it is his brother Dicky Eklund that certainly has been born under the same misaligned stars such as Mike Tyson, Jake LaMotta, Hector Camacho, Bernard Hopkins, Trevor Berbick, etc. etc. etc.

Ironically, Mark Wahlberg was a troubled youth with several run-ins with the law, who grew up outside of Boston, Massachusetts, just thirty minutes from Ward.

The majority of boxing films attempt to humanize the fighter by purging the relentless thirst for blood from the battling soul. The theme of man vs. man is central; yet, man vs. himself is the battle raging on a blood-stained canvas. Usually it’s the down-and-out guy looking to make it to the top one last time, struggling to juggle his personal life and professional career.

Ward and Eklund are two brothers with a dread of Palookaville; the Hades of the boxing world where washed up, no talented, punch drunk shells of former selves lay to waste. “I’m just one punch away.” Robert Ryan’s character delivers this line to his wife in THE SET-UP. Marlon Brando’s character in ON THE WATERFRONT groans about a past opportunity after taking a dive, when he exclaims, “I coulda been a contender.” Again and again such phrases of would have, could have, should have, are mouthed by boxers.

In THE FIGHTER, Mark Wahlberg’s portrayal of boxer Mickey Ward deals with these themes. Time is running out for Mickey. The exception is that it is not he, but his boxer brother, who has the checkered history. Without the heroic ROCKY anthem blaring, director David O. Russell successfully delivers a film that is packed full of personal struggles and multi-dimensional characters without pulling any punches.

Mickey Ward’s adulatory celebration as the title-holder defines his ability as an athlete in the world of boxing and lends pride to the Irish townspeople of Lowell, Massachusetts. Surpassing all of that, his victory overcoming personal strife and the burden of being “the good son” is a monumental testament to his inner strength and belief.

As in any boxing film there is a woman. In this case is more — a woman, a mother, and his skein of seven surly slovenly sisters. The complexity of his relationship with his family and his connection with a new woman that enters his life creates a friction that combusts into a struggle that is pertinent in Ward’s in-ring domination. The script moves with fluidity while strengthening the drama and characters.

Where men are the fighters, women in this film are equally as strong or even stronger. Other than Jane Alexander’s character in THE GREAT WHITE HOPE, all other women in fighting films pale in comparison. Ward’s mother is his manager and his sisters are her henchmen. The trouble is that she is not management material and she suffers a clinging hope on her other son, Dicky Eklund.

Mickey’s new love interest is Charlene Fleming as portrayed by Amy Adams. As a bartender wearing shorts and tank top, she runs her mouth and chugs shots with the blue collars at the bar, fending off unwanted groping. Although Mickey initiates, it is she who comes knocking.

The Ward household is built on beer and dysfunction and feminine tyranny. Simply put, in Alice Ward’s home, all men have been castrated. Mickey’s ex-wife belongs in this realm demonstrating this very same behavior by ruling her current husband as she does Mickey with a berating emasculating fervor as both men react in unison with the same docile frailty.

Any woman that dares to enter as a romantic interest is doomed. Strong willed, Charlene is to butt heads with the women of the Ward/Eklund clan, as Michael Buffer’s trademarked catchphrase could have echoed loudly throughout Lowell, “Let’s get ready to rumble!” And they do.

The director chose to add a bit of comedy to lighten the tension by taking moments to get up close and personal with Ward’s sisters. They are quite the spectacle. Think trailer park, think bad hair, think Rachel Dratch characters on SNL. They don’t like Charlene and feel that she has an air of superiority about her, calling her, “Miss MTV.” Well, Charlene had some college, so she is ahead of the pack. Charlene and Mickey go to a foreign film complete with subtitles and she remarks that the film “didn’t even have any good sex.” So, now you know the general IQ of the bunch.

At the core of this dysfunctional family dynamic is Dicky, Mickey’s half-brother, the former boxer, living a warped sense of reality due to his crack addiction, truly believing that he is at the threshold of the prolific boxers dream, the comeback. Aiding in this glass pipe fantasy is his mother who dotes on him with rose-colored, heart shaped glasses. Mrs. Ward continually wears out the heads of the VCR as she plays Dicky’s recorded televised boxing matches. Her son is her hero.

THE FIGHTER is a movie within a movie. An HBO film crew follows Dicky in Lowell as he parades through the streets – the hometown hero who fought Sugar Ray Leonard. He thinks the documentary film is all about him and his comeback. What it reveals is his pathetic crack addiction, his crack addict friends, and the shambles that he made of his life. (Look on Youtube for HIGH ON CRACK STREET to see the real Dicky Eklund and his friend Boo Boo. It’s worth a look at the end credits of THE FIGHTER since the real life Ward, Eklund, and Boo Boo make an appearance.)

The problem is that Eklund trains Ward. Truthfully, he is a great trainer. However, his addiction and resulting behavior are a hindrance to his brother. Eklund wants center stage at all times, and if need be, Ward should step-aside for mama’s boy.

The defining moment for Ward’s about face is when he goes into the ring with someone that is way out of his weight class and is pounced upon rendering him a bloody pulp with just enough humiliation not to face everyone at home. This travesty was the decision of Ward’s mother and Eklund over concern of the purse. If Ward did not fight, even though his scheduled opponent was not able to get in the ring, they would go home empty handed.

Enter Charlotte, the strong willed. And so, the power struggle ensues. Eklund indirectly causes the calamity. He should have been known as The Hurricane. The very guy that is petrified of his mother contributes a swirl of issues and incidents such as arrests, brawls, tears, and family torment.

Imagine a man, a tough man, one that can easily do time, clouded with crack, bailing from a second floor window to hide from his mommy. The same man has a child that must visit him as he is incarcerated. A man who causes heartbreak, angst and disgust. This vexing soul is also so dearly loved by his family and the people around him at all cost.

In a performance worthy of an Oscar, Christian Bale plays a character with remarkable range. Again, Bale lost weight for a role. He was skeletal-like in THE MACHINIST. This time, he is as thin as a drug user. His anger, sorrow, self-loathing, and so many emotional outpourings leave one to feel for the character. Bale was not originally scheduled for the role. As Wahlberg states, “Thank God he was” the one who finally did take on the part.

In prison, Eklund suffers during his detox. Then, the darling of the pen is having his HBO premiere in a room with the other inmates. Cheers for Dicky! Quickly, he is thrown from his throne as he watches himself as a drug addict, and violence erupts as he cuts the film short. This same guy is later listening to one of Ward’s matches on the prison payphone and is giving a detailed account to all of the attentive inmates.

A new Ward takes to the ring. Raising his hands in victory is due to the family and Charlotte working as a cohesive unit for the good of Mickey Ward. Ward breaks from his Cinderella chains and finds triumph in the ring and at home to end his book with the closing, they lived happily ever after.

The boxing scenes are very straightforward. Scenes such as Robert DeNiro in RAGING BULL bearing the blows from his opponent or the highly stylized choreographic fighting from Stallone’s ROCKY series are not found in this film. The rather straightforward approach is similar to what can be found in THE SET-UP. The boxing takes a backseat to the drama unfolding outside the ring. Director David O. Russell said, “We only had three days to do the fight scenes, which made those very focused. We shot them HBO style, which was a suggestion Mark had. ”

Mark Wahlberg had met Ward, and wanted to do a biopic about him for several years. Just as Sylvester Stallone was passionate about doing a film on Bayonne, New Jersey based boxer Chuck Wepner and made ROCKY, Wahlberg felt a kinship towards Ward.

“First time I met Mickey I was 18 years old and I was already a huge fan of his. I was just starting out in my music career. Some years later I started making movies and it dawned on me that this would make for a great story. I went to Lowell, the rights weren’t available, but I got to spend more time with Mickey and Dicky. And then, I just got a call that Paramount had the rights and they had a script that they wanted to make. I read it, and right away I was in. I started training the next day. That was five years ago. We finally got the movie made, but ultimately, I promised Mickey that we were going to get this movie made one way or another. And, he was happy with the fact that I was going to play him. Also, they were all very thrilled that the people involved in the movie cared about them, were in love with them, and we appreciated what they were able to overcome and to accomplish. That was important to them. We haven’t shown them the movie yet. We will be showing it in Lowell. Alice hasn’t seen it, the sisters haven’t seen it. We’ll see how that goes. It’s okay for me because I have a lifetime pass, everybody else, I don’t know. This movie is a tribute to them and everything that they had gone through.”

Eventually, once the project was greenlit, it went with major hitches along the way, keeping Wahlberg miffed. “It was just one of those pieces of material that everybody was immediately drawn to. That’s why I thought it was a no brainer. I started training and thought it’s only a matter of a couple of months before we’ll be shooting this movie. But, wanting to do it and actually doing it are obviously two different things. For whatever reason, it attracted some really major talent but nobody wanted to pull the trigger. We’d have a start date and the next thing you know, everybody would leave and I’d be standing there saying, ‘No we have to do this, we promised Mickey, we promised Dicky, this could be great.'”

Scorsese passed, not wishing to revisit the world of boxing. At one point, Darren Aronofsky, who is a producer on the film, was geared to direct. David O. Russell took the helm of a genre depicted numerous times on the silver screen. Why was he drawn to a genre such as this? “I felt the fact that the mother was so central, I hadn’t seen that. Where the mother was the manager. Where the mother, in spite of having nine kids was still beautiful enough that she could almost look like the older brother’s girlfriends at times. There are two romances in the film, between her and Dicky and between Mickey And Charlene.”

With so many starts and stops, the cast was reshuffled many times. Wahlberg’s brother Donny was once in the running for Dicky’s role as were many others. On shooting day, it was Christian Bale who was on set. Bale didn’t have much in the way of boxing training for the role. Wahlberg comments, “He didn’t have a lot of time to train. Thankfully, the main thing for him was doing the physical transformation, which he had done in the past, which is why when I saw him across the schoolyard, our daughters went to the same school, I was like, this is the guy. I had seen RESCUE DAWN, I had seen THE MACHINIST. Thankfully he read the script right away and responded to it immediately. I knew I had the right guy.”

For Wahlberg, intermittent training as the project was constantly delayed was a decision to keep the film alive. So he looks the part and has the skills to make the film as real as possible. As the actual shoot loomed closer, training with Ward and Eklund began. “When they came to live at my house, we started the training process, every single day we would go from my house, drive down to the church, and we’d spend 20-30 minutes praying before we would go running 8 miles. Every single time we’d walk out of the church, I’d feel fine and they would walk out with tears in their eyes.” Commenting on Ward in the ring with him, Wahlberg admits, ” It doesn’t matter how much he likes you, if you get in the ring with him he is going to try to hurt you. That’s just the way it is. It’s the name of the game and he likes to play the game.”

What you see on screen is the real thing. With a 33 day shooting schedule and a budget that was halved, the focus to do it quick and right was the name of the game. “We didn’t have the luxury of having stunt doubles and stand-ins. We hired real boxers. They came to my house and we trained and we duplicated the fights and the most interesting moments in those real fights that Mickey had. I was just adamant about doing it in the very beginning because I had been training for so long. I probably made four or five movies during the course of training for this movie. It’s extremely difficult to get up three hours before your call time, train for two and half hours then go shoot a twelve hour day. I was adamant about getting the boxing stuff done so we could focus on the rest of the story. To kind of separate it from other fight films, we needed to hire real boxers and really box and shoot it like a fight you’d see on HBO.”

Was Mark Wahlberg given special star treatment in the ring with the pros? “You figure out a way to hit at 60%. But, if I catch the number three middleweight in the world with 60%, he’s gonna want to hit with 65%. The next thing you know, we are throwing pretty hard. But, you know what, nobody got seriously injured except for some bumps or bruises, we came out okay. I was really wanting to make the fights as realistic as possible, so that meant getting in there.”

With awards season fever quickly approaching, Wahlberg should stand proud that he never threw in the towel, and made a truly remarkable piece of film history.

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2 Responses »

  1. I dislike boxing, but the complexity of the characters dictate that it’s a “must see.”

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mark Wahlberg Fan, bklynh2oboy. bklynh2oboy said: @MWahlbergGal @AddThis http://www.filmsinreview.com/2010/12/26/mark-wahlbergs-the-fighter-and-boxing-in-cinema-round-one/ […]

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