The Fighter is a 2010 film telling the real-life story of Micky Ward, a boxer who beat the odds and earned the respect of his peers, as well as boxing fans. Mark Wahlberg plays Ward, with Christian Bale portraying Dicky Eklund, Ward’s half-brother, a former boxer who has become addicted to crack cocaine following the end of his career.
The film was a hit with both critics and audiences, earning Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, among others. Bale and Melissa Leo, who plays Ward’s overbearing mother, took home the awards for Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress, respectively. The success of the film can clearly be attributed to its adherence to classic Hollywood principles. The Fighter represents a kind of filmmaking that’s become rare in recent years. It resonated with audiences thanks to the following key qualities:
Using a Popular Genre to Tell a Powerful Story
Most classic Hollywood films succeed by telling a strong story wrapped in popular genre conventions. The Godfather is a classic tragedy told as a gangster film, Star Wars is a timeless tale of good vs. evil dressed up in the most thrilling elements of sci-fi entertainment, and Jaws depicts the age-old man vs. nature conflict via a Hitchcockian suspense thriller.
The sports film is another major Hollywood genre that has yielded unforgettable pictures. Boxing movies in particular are audience favorites, with classics like Raging Bull and Rocky still celebrated today.
That’s one of the main reasons The Fighter works so effectively. At its core, it’s a story about second chances. Ward gets a second chance to succeed at the one thing he’s truly good at. His half-brother overcomes his personal demons to play a positive role in someone’s life. Charlene Fleming, Ward’s romantic interest (played by Amy Adams) shakes off her former reputation to help someone she loves thrive.
While these types of stories are rewarding, audiences also want to be entertained. A true-life boxing movie uses classic Hollywood storytelling to tackle real human subjects, while also delivering a crowd-pleasing picture.
Assembling an All-Star Team
No film becomes a classic without talented people working both behind and in front of the camera. The Fighter was a passion project for Wahlberg, who’d been trying to get the film made for years. His own background made him the ideal fit for the role of Ward, whose blue-collar Massachusetts roots mirror those of the man who would portray him on screen. Meanwhile, Relativity Media stepped up to finance the film after Paramount limited its involvement to domestic distribution.
For the character of Eklund, the film needed an actor who could transform himself, bringing the kind of vital dynamic energy that actors like Robert De Niro brought to early roles like Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta. Christian Bale, who had already demonstrated his ability to disappear into a range of characters, was a smart choice.
It also helps to surprise audiences by giving actors a chance to show off talents many viewers may not know they have. By shedding her “good-girl” image, Amy Adams brought a unique, unexpected quality to the role of Charlene Fleming.
David O. Russell directed the film. Having worked with Wahlberg before on projects like Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees, he clearly had a relationship with the actor that helped facilitate a natural collaboration.
More importantly, Russell’s films have all anchored their stories in genuine human characters. Like Francis Ford Coppola or Sidney Lumet, this is not a director who plays it safe by sticking to one genre. The common thread linking Russell’s films is a focus on people. Hiring him to direct the movie ensured that it wouldn’t lose its emotional connection with the audience.
Having Something to Say
There are many films that manage to thrill audiences during the two hours or so when they’re watching the picture, only to evaporate from their memories shortly after. That’s because they don’t have much of a message to communicate. The films that stand the test of time have something more to say.
The Fighter is about people learning to work through their obstacles to achieve goals that seem out of reach. These are characters who have already been beaten up by life. Although The Fighter tells a true story, the character of a boxer serves as a perfect metaphor for this conflict. A boxer will get knocked down, but if they refuse to stay down, they can still win the fight.
That’s an empowering message for viewers. Very few people will ever box professionally, but almost everyone will experience regret, discouragement, and the sense that they’ve missed their shot at something. The Fighter works as quality Hollywood entertainment because it reminds viewers that it’s not too late to get back in the ring and emerge victorious.