know where this true-life story is going. A fight movie isn’t going to all this trouble for some palooka who never grabs the brass ring.
The beginning of Micky’s way out of the losing spiral he’s caught in comes when he takes up with Charlene (Amy Adams), a pretty bartender who’s maybe a step up in class from the people he usually hangs around with. The first clue is her hair. In a bar scene in which most of the women have big hair, Charlene’s tumbles in soft red locks down her back. Charlene has been to college on a high-jumping scholarship, so she knows something about competition, and she knows a few other things too.
The biggest hair belongs to Micky’s battalion of sisters, seven of the frowziest, scariest babes you will ever run into, and to his mother, who runs the family like a don, and not the Cambridge kind. Melissa Leo, an actress who is shedding a career of relative obscurity as surely and as spectacularly as Micky Ward ever did, has a field day with the character of Alice, a flinty, tough broad who calls the shots and rules the roost. She’s not criminal and not even bad-hearted, but she reminds you of those implacable crime-boss mamas in mob movies.
Mamas are always tough to shed, but Micky’s bigger problem is Dicky. He grew up idolizing Dicky, who taught him how to fight. The two could not be more different in and out of the ring. Dicky is gregarious, prancing, elusive — “I’m squiggly,” he chortles, describing the style that took him the distance with Leonard. “I’m not even there!” He is being followed around Lowell by an HBO crew that is making a documentary on his comeback, he tells everyone, but in fact they are shooting an episode of America Undercover about his slide into drugs.
Mark Wahlberg grew up idolizing Micky Ward, whose Lowell roots were not far from the Boston mean streets of Wahlberg’s troubled youth. He’s been wanting to make this movie for some time, and he may have waited too long — at nearly 40, he’s a little past his boxing prime. But then, so was Micky when he made his move, and while Wahlberg adds a decade to the equation, he looks good, and his fighting feels authentic. It is his quiet presence at the center of the movie that gives it its ballast. The flashier role is Bale’s, and Bale plays it to the hilt. He shifts and fidgets and clowns, but he also moves like the boxer Dicky used to be, and Bale shows us the layers of his deterioration. He’s irresistible to watch, but without Wahlberg’s solid underplaying, Bale’s performance might whirl the movie off the screen. Director David O. Russell finds just the right balance.
There is some lovely work on the undercard of this movie. Those seven sisters are like a Greek chorus of furies, a masterpiece of the casting director’s art. Jack McGee is perfect casting and perfect playing as Micky’s father. And Mickey O’Keefe is even more perfectly cast as the cop from the Lowell police force who helps train the young fighter — O’Keefe is the man who really did mentor Micky Ward, playing himself.
Movies always turn out better than real life, because they can. This one ends before the three fights with Arturo Gatti that are the signature fights of “Irish” Micky Ward’s career, three of the great fights in boxing history, relegating them to mention in the end titles. And it ends with Dicky hitting a grace note, which in real life he has not maintained.
A clip of the real half-brothers at the end reveals how beautifully Bale and Wahlberg captured their characters. I wish we could have seen the real sisters and mother, too.
Cinderella, dressed in yella: Mark Wahlberg and MIckey O’Keefe