Directed by David O. Russell (Paramount, 2010)
Boxing films are invariably tales of lion-hearted toughs from the wrong side of the tracks overcoming insuperable odds. But great fight movies are more than David-slays-Goliath epics. Alongside the slugfest in the ring, these films track another, more personal, battle.
In the best boxing films the real obstacle to victory is not the other fighter waiting in the ring, but a host of personal or familial demons standing between our hero and the title bout. In Rocky II and Cinderella Man, Rocky Balboa and Jim Braddock must overcome their wives’ fears about boxing before they can take on the champ. And in Million Dollar Baby, Maggie Fitzgerald needs to beat prejudice before she gets her title shot.
In David O. Russell’s film about "Irish" Micky Ward’s (Mark Wahlberg) struggle to capture the world light welterweight title, it is not the boxers waiting in the opposite corner who pose the greatest threat to his success. Ward takes several serious and bloody beatings from his ringside opponents, but it is the emotional and psychological battery he suffers at the hands of his idealized and crack-addicted half-brother Dicky Ecklund (Christian Bale), his Medea-like mother and manager Alice Ward (Melissa Leo), and a six pack of big-haired, gum-chewing sisters that very nearly KOs his boxing career.
Alice Ward is the matriarch of a life-sucking clan strangling Micky’s dreams in a web of self-deception, addiction, and manipulation. Indeed, Micky seems noticeably safer inside the boxing ring, trading blows with other fighters, than back at home tangling with his mother and brother.
Dicky and Alice are master manipulators, blindsiding and undercutting Micky in an emotional melee that leaves him exhausted and dispirited. Still, if he is ever to achieve any real success in the ring, Ward will need to figure out how to confront and conquer the demons in his own household, to stand up at home for himself and his dreams.