'The Fighter' lands all the right punches

No doubt those who love movies might look at the title of the recently released film, "The Fighter," and bridle at the idea of watching another "Rocky," meaning familiar scenes wherein two pugilistic gladiators stand toe to toe and turn their faces into ground round while blood and sweat (and an occasional mouthpiece) splatter across the screen, usually in slow motion.

It's a familiar template — the training, the crisis of confidence, inherent conflict, the booking of an initial fight, then the main event.

But screenwriters love the field of play as a context for creating morality plays, always filled with grit and raw emotions, as scrappy, courageous come-from-behind athletes demonstrate that it takes more than muscle and size to prevail; it takes heart. Audiences embrace these stories, openly and uncritically. Sylvester Stallone gleaned that truth long ago and turned the character Rocky into an icon of will that triumphs over reality. Adriennnnne!

That brings us to "The Fighter." But first things first: this is not a boxing movie. Well, it is, but it's not. Sure, "Irish" Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg) is a struggling boxer. And yes, there are scenes where Ward stands in a ring and takes a beating and more. But the essence of this movie is the startling performances offered up by a top-drawer ensemble. It's an actors' showcase, a pleasure to watch, with stunning portrayals that define what it means to be an accomplished thespian.

The setting is the working-class neighborhood of Lowell, Mass., a gray, flat, frayed town that mirrors the hardscrabble desperation of the inhabitants.

At the movie's center is Mickey Ward, city street worker and wannabe boxer. He is surrounded by a chaotic, eruptive family of seven sisters and his mother, the chain-smoking, hard as nails Alice (Melissa Leo) who also is his manager, looking for a fight, any fight, no matter how it ends, win or lose, as long as there's a payday. Mickey's brother, Dicky (Christian Bale), once a fighter himself, who had a moment of glory in the past, is now a crack junkie and, ostensibly, Mickey's trainer.

Tolstoy wrote in "Anna Karenina" that all happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. The Ward family is a kaleidoscope of dysfunction — familial relationships that are beyond complex, a web of manipulation and control in which Mickey is deeply enmeshed. And then there's his newly found girlfriend, Charlene (Amy Adams), who stands on the outside of the perpetual melodrama, recognizing that if Mickey is ever to fulfill his dream of a title shot, he will have to find a life apart from his mother and brother and the seven big-haired, hard-living Furies.

The portrayals are simply superb. Without exception. A fine example would be the against-type character captured by Adams: Charlene is steely, foul-mouthed, a local bartender with a hardcore rep who takes no prisoners. Bale's transformative role as Dicky is astonishing. He inhabits the gaunt and wild-eyed, crazy and frantic and reckless older brother. It's a startling performance that will likely garner some awards.

And not to forget Leo as Mickey's mother. She's an amazing actor who has worked the fringes of Hollywood for years in unglamorous roles that too often have gone unnoticed. And yet, here she is, garish, teased hair, matador pants, killer heels and completely convincing.

In fact, there is a raw verisimilitude to the film that is remarkable, deeply human, a window into the lives of flawed people whose lives unfold far from the boxing ring. "The Fighter" is one of the year's best.

As an aside, if Bale is an actor is of interest, then a must-see is "Empire of the Sun," shot by Stephen Spielberg, made when Bale was, perhaps, no more than 12. It's an unforgettable movie, one that portended that he would one day be an actor of limitless potential.

TRON: Legacy

Visually, "TRON: Legacy" is a stunner. If the youngsters showing up to view the movie rented the original 1982 original "TRON," well that's all to the good. At least they will have a starting point for what is a pretty skinny story. "Tron" starred Jeff Bridges, then a genius creator of video games, and Kevin Flynn, who actually got sucked into his own game, abruptly disappearing into a virtual world and leaving behind a wildly successful company, Encom and his young son, Sam.

Sam (Garret Hedlund), now 27, finds a way to follow in his father's footsteps and enters the Tron parallel universe, now called the Grid, filled with black-light costumes, shiny helmets, spandex, all with red and white piping. It all looks pretty cool. And the rides. From the cars to the motorcycles to the aircraft — very spiffy.

And so his adventure begins as Sam discovers that his father is still alive but so is his alter-ego, Clu, who has turned into his lethal nemesis. Remember, this is all a virtual reality and everyone except Flynn is a program.

For gamers, and there are lots out there, this film is likely a serious rush. For nontechies and nongamers who have never held a joystick or done battle with anything approaching a virtual world, well, "Tron" merely puts on a light show and shows that CGI advances geometrically and reinforces the idea that most movies made for the tween/teen and younger crowds would now seem flat and uninteresting without the incredible special effects.

"Tron:Legacy" is designed for 3-D, adding, no doubt, to the experience, which is what this film is: an experience. It's really not a story of any import. But for movies of this ilk, well, it's the visual journey, not the narrative destination.

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