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Eugene Weekly : Movies : 3.3.11

The Fighter Inside Me

A boxers take on the Oscar-nominated movie

By Dante Zuniga-West

You go in alone. You come out alone too, and sometimes people dont come out at all ã not often, but it happens. Only two people truly know whats going on in there, which punches hurt, which were just glancing. Its just the two of you in that ring, surrounded by the screaming mouths of spectators. They call it a sport, but it isnt. Its a fight.

The first time I hit someone in the ring, I realized that 90 percent of most boxing movies is complete bullshit. Youd be astounded at the damage a human body can take, how many times you can hit someone with a 10-ounce glove and still they keep coming at you. Its so different in real lifeÄ we watch too many movies. Almost six years after that first fight, I still marvel at the feeling of sticking someone with a good punch, how it isnt this bone-crunching collision of jarring forces. Its more like the feeling of hitting a baseball with one perfect swing of the bat. You barely register the impact; the smoothness of it is startling.

Not everyone likes a fight; in fact, most people will do anything to avoid physical confrontation. A fighter is part masochist, part perfectionist and all heart. Showing up every day at a cold little gym to hit a bag until you ache, eating the same diet every day and then trading punches with someone nobody in his right mind would pick a fight with ã its truly extraordinary. Try fighting anyone for uninterrupted intervals of three-minutes, and tell me by the third round that those arent the longest three minutes of your life. It isnt for everyone.

But everyone loves a comeback. We are Americans, and we love our redemptive fables about gritty underdogs. This is exactly what director David O. Russell gives us in The Fighter.

A biopic of boxer Micky Wards life, the movie is set in Lowell, Mass., a town that looks like something out of a Thom Jones short story, with hardscrabble characters and painful realism. What distinguishes The Fighter from the general heap of boxing films is its confrontation of ugliness, both inside the ring and out. This isnt Rocky, where long training montages and •80s music dominate the transformative arc of the protagonist. Instead, The Fighter gives us scenes such as Ward (Walberg) arguing with his haggard mother/manager, who offers him up to the next contender like meat on a hook. Shades of nepotism, domestic violence and substance abuse suffuse the movie.

As Mickys older half-brother Dicky Eklund, Christian Bale delivers the films most powerful performance as the washed-up, crack-addicted former pride of Lowell. Bale took home the best supporting Oscar recently, and his characters journey is the real meat of the film. Before his addiction, Dicky was known as that guy who knocked down legendary boxer Sugar Ray Leonard. This, however, is a matter of contention among fans. Some say Sugar Ray slipped.

When, in a key scene, Wards girlfriend (Amy Adams) confronts Dicky, the ex-boxer neither admits nor denies what actually happened in the fabled bout. Instead, he offers Wards girl a lapidary truth understood by all fighters ®® that he was the one in the ring, and only he knows what happened. You go in alone.

But you dont do it alone. The Fighter provides a glimpse into those unseen portions of a boxers life, uncovering Wards emotional connection with those who support and/or fail him. Crucial to any fighters success are those in his corner ã often actual family members. Such is the case with many pro fighters. The dynamic is about trust and, ultimately, love. The Fighter pits this notion of unconditional familial love against the cruelty of boxings financial underbelly. It also does what any good story about fighting must do, which is reveal the inherently complicated spirit of a boxer ã someone who fights others, but often fights himself as well.

Walberg and Bale play Micky and Dicky with superb realism. Bale in particular reveals an age-old truth about fighting men ã a truth epitomized by something I heard long before I stepped through the red ropes with gloves on. Its a statement as worn as old heavy bags, and it stings like the thud of a body shot: "There are many fights in life, not all of which occur in the ring.”