Volume 80, Number 30 | December 23 - 29, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Run time: 115 minutes
Directed by David O. Russell
Written by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson
Visit torhamer.com, dbe1.com, thefightermovie.com and dickeklund.com
Photo by Lucas Noonan
Please Hamer, do hurt him: Tor’s long jab makes short order of his opponent.
Hamer & Trainer weigh in on ‘The Fighter’
Feel-good film has merit, but can’t go the distance
BY SCOTT STIFFLER
It’s 1993 — and there’s nothing pretty, or particularly hopeful, about the newly paved downscale streets of Lowell, Massachusetts.
That’s where we first set eyes on muscular, sweaty, soft-spoken Micky Ward — a road crew worker pushing a broom while big brother Dicky Eklund eggs him on with a series of playful punches that come flying from off-camera and skillfully whizz past his ear.
Natural born spotlight hog Dicky (the onetime “Pride of Lowell”) is showboating for an HBO crew making what he thinks is a comeback story — but is actually a documentary on the downward spiral of a former boxer whose only unbeatable opponent these days is a smoky homemade crack pipe. Literally running on fumes, Dicky’s life has become a sad cycle of ditching drug houses by way of second-story windows, arriving late for training sessions with his little bro, and constantly invoking the “fact” that although he lost to Sugar Ray Leonard, he did manage to knock the guy off his feet (though some say Leonard slipped).
Sober in every sense of the word, Micky is a heavy puncher who’s got the goods to be champ. He just might get there, too — if he doesn’t fold under the pressure of emerging from Dicky’s shadow, pleasing a distant mother/manager, doing right by his daughter after a messy divorce and keeping seven gossipy but proactive sisters from wailing on his new love interest.
As broadly drawn characters go, these half-brothers and their holy mess of an extended family sure know how to come out swinging. Mark Wahlberg underplays Ward as an eager-to-please middleman who’s forever disengaging from conflict with doe-eyed sideways glances that bloom into distant stares. Far more fun to watch is Dicky Eklund — fully inhabited by the raspy-voiced, raccoon-eyed, Oscar-baiting Christian Bale. Melissa Leo as the boozy, opportunistic matriarch and Amy Adams as Ward’s formidable girlfriend Charlene give more than just able support to this tale of sibling rivalry. Their scenes of verbal sparring are more brutal and compelling than the largely bloodless fight scenes (which lack punch because they depict Ward’s style of taking a beating until his opponent is exhausted).
With all this backstage drama going on, how does a man who’s the meal ticket for so many others do what it takes to win — and can he, once he finally decides he wants it as badly as those in his crowded corner?
From the first frame of “The Fighter,” you see the answer coming at you like a lighting-fast left hook you’re powerless to avoid. But like any decent underdog tale, knowing how it turns out doesn’t necessarily ruin the experience. It just means that by the time the final bell rings, you feel like you’ve gone all twelve rounds only to lose on a split decision.
Before the ref stops this review for invoking another hackneyed boxing metaphor, let’s just hand it over to the experts. At least they’ve earned the right.
“I’m not tryin’ to cut the movie up or put a punch in the face to Mark Wahlberg — but here’s a man who’s been training with Freddie Roach, been in his gym…I would think he’d be a little more astute in his boxing, especially since he’s been training for years just for this role…his balance was terrible. But he did get the patented hook to the body correct, because that’s what Micky Ward was known for throwing.”
That’s the assessment of Wahlberg as Ward, as observed by Shawn Raysor — a former sports writer and current trainer to Tor Hamer (whom Raysor describes as “America’s hopeful for a heavyweight world title”). That rosy prediction is no mere boast. New York City native Raysor’s got an impressive track record as both a participant and an observer. His amateur record is 53-7 — and as a primary trainer, he guided featherweight Angel “Gee-Roc” Torres to a 14-2 record with 10 straight wins. Later, he was with Super Middleweight Scott “The Sandman” Pemberton when he won the North American Boxing Federation Fighter of the Year title. Raysor says he’s working with Hamer because of the hungry fighter’s star-making charisma, exceptional work ethic and ability to swiftly execute in the ring what he learns in training.
Hamer is a 27-year-old native New Yorker who weighs 221 lbs., stands 6’2” and has an amateur record of 34-1. His professional record is 13-1 (9 KOs). Currently promoted by DiBella Entertainment, Hamer says of the film, “Look, without getting too technical, because it is a movie and he is an actor, Wahlberg’s not trying to be a fighter. To his credit, he’s portraying a guy who was not very skillful, more of a brawler. But his punches, they just were not believable.” That disclaimer aside, Hamer’s eye for truth and detail won’t let him give the filmmakers a free pass — especially when it comes to the scenes in the ring, which he says lack the intensity and precision of films like “Raging Bull” and “Million Dollar Baby.”
“Two hours and there’s not one jab,” says Hamer, shocked at the lack of that essential boxing maneuver meant to distract. “If you can make kung fu movies that have guys flying, dancing off of trees, breaking down walls, you mean to tell me you can’t put four punches together that look interesting, with decent camera work? It’s ridiculous. That’s something that really bothered me. But the acting was good. Christian Bale killed it.”
One aspect of the film’s narrative that kills every bit as much as Bale’s much-hyped performance, is the contentious relationship Ward has with his family. Everybody, it seems, has their own take on the best advice for his personal life and career. Micky’s often a befuddled victim of these competing agendas, but does manage to draw the line when he realizes that too many hangers-on will drag him down and cause him to lose that shot at the big time (though, ironically, it’s self-serving big bro Dicky whose advice from behind prison walls secures a crucial victory for Ward).
Hamer says the film nails this aspect by venturing into rarely-seen territory. “I think they captured the relationships of Micky Ward’s life, which usually isn’t done in film. Most boxers have these tug and pull relationships — how to balance your work and social life.” Like the first “Rocky” film, Ward is a prisoner of his environment. “He had to live in Lowell. That’s where his kid and his family were. His crazy ex-wife, he had to deal with her because there was no other option. And that created a certain kind of individual.”
But if a boxer is tethered to those in his corner, he’s also afforded a level of freedom that’s rare in the world of professional sports. “There’s a distinct contrast between team athletes and fighters,” says Hamer. “We’re allowed to be individuals. We’re encouraged to have eccentricities, to be colorful and speak out in interviews — because we don’t have a franchise. Whatever we do is good for business as long as we’re winning fights.”
Sure, winning is good for business. But is “The Fighter” good for boxing? Both men note that while they’ve got their share of technical quibbles, those who aren’t hardcore boxing enthusiasts won’t be disappointed.
Raysor says that even though it glossed over or completely ignored some crucial details of the Micky Ward story (such as his dynamic fights with Arturo Gatti), the film delivers everything we’ve come to expect in terms of the biopic’s dramatic arc. “It did the job. It portrayed a guy who was behind, then turned it around in the later rounds, then got a dramatic victory. It satisfied that goal.” For Hamer, “It’s an uplifting, underdog story…a feel-good holiday movie. You’re going to walk out of that film happy. You’re going to want to go, you know, hit somebody.” Only in the ring, of course, and only in three-minute intervals.