The boxing movie is a tried and true but often tired genre. Over the years Hollywood has produced its fair share of good to great boxing dramas. In 1947, the explosive John Garfield, one of the first great method actors came out punching in Body and Soul, a slum to glory saga where Garfield fights his way to the crown while leaving his girl and family behind and embracing temptation and beautiful blondes. Only when he blinds an opponent, does he begin to realize the price of his success. It sounds like the usual hooey, but the director Robert Rossen (All the King's Men) knew how to make powerful melodramas, and this was one of his best.
Flash forward to 1975, and the genre gets a colorful reboot with Rocky, one of the most popular sports movies ever and also one of the worst Oscar Best Films beating the superior drama Network. Sylvester Stallone made Rocky a national hero, the underdog from the streets who goes all the way...at first with style...but then 4 sequels almost made him a joke. But in 1980 Martin Scorcese and Robert De Niro made the best boxing movie ever, the brutally realistic Raging Bull. Filmed in newsreel real black and white, the story of Jake DeMotto, charts the rise and fall of a sadistic, animalistic man who is vicious to his opponents, his friends and even his family. We first see De Niro in the title role telling jokes in a cheap club. He is bloated and slurs his words, a pathetic creature. Scorcese intercuts violent fight scenes with domestic violence, and both are difficult to watch. The strength of this film lies in its honest approach towards an unsavory real person. Like DeMotto's blows, this movie never holds back.
Naturally, there are many other boxing and sports movies worthy of mentioning, but now The Fighter walks into the ring. This is a boxing movie that has some of the tried and true cliches, but it also has an incredibly strong family dynamic to support it. Mark Wahlberg plays Irish-American welter-weight Micky Ward while Christian Bale (in his best role since he played the young lead in Spielberg's Empire of the Sun) is his older half brother. They are both trapped in one of the most dysfunctional families ever put on film. They have seven sisters who seem always to be at home and acting like some kind of perverted Greek chorus of harpies. Ruling the herd is the mother from hell, portrayed with terrifying and perverse strength by Melissa Leo, who made a strong impact in last year's Frozen River. And there is the usually sweet Amy Adams as Micky's feisty girl friend who must fight his family to save him. Yes, there are the requisite fight scenes, but they are secondary to the horrid family circus that Micky must escape. All of the performances are powerful and genuine, with Bale and Leo being the obvious "showboats." Directed by David O. Russell, whose Three Kings with Wahlberg and George Clooney was the only film that really spoke to the ill-fated Gulf War, The Fighter is the surprise entry in the year's best films.