The Review: Boxing movies have a lot to live up to when it comes to covering new ground, with both the fictional (such the “Rocky” series) and the biographical (including “Raging Bull”) giving this particular sub-genre an incredibly strong pedigree. There is, of course, a part of the audience who will be judging on the realism of the fights themselves, while others are looking for satisfying drama between the punches, and to be successful a boxing movie really needs to score on both counts. Given the depth and breadth of the history of the sport, it’s not surprising that you can still find true stories worth telling but, as a philosopher once said, “it’s the way ya tell ‘em.”
The first thing that The Fighter has in its corner is a story with a strong array of characters, strong enough that the cast were showered with awards and nominations. Christian Bale’s performance is the most obvious, and he does push his portrayal of Dicky, the once successful elder brother who lives off his moment of glory as he slides ever downwards, as far as he can – anyone who’s a fan of Christian Bale will know that’s pretty far. By contrast, Mark Wahlberg’s Micky is the polar opposite, quiet, reserved and unwilling to challenge his mother and manager, Alice (Melissa Leo), at least until he begins a relationshop the similarly reserved but more defiant barmaid Charlene (Amy Adams). The family is rounded out by Micky and Dicky’s father and seven sisters, and the influence of both becomes increasingly crucial as Micky attempts to further his career while Dicky begins to make promises he can’t keep.
Bale has stated that he couldn’t have given such a performance without Wahlberg to counterbalance it, and it’s hard to disagree, the quieter moments of Bale and Adams’ relationship providing a needed contrast to the family dramas that populate the rest of the film. Occasionally picking out humorous moments, the main body of the drama is driven by Dicky’s behaviour and its ramifications for all of those around him; themes of family and loyalty come up repeatedly, and also the impact that both the highs and lows of the brothers’ actions on the local community, but the drama eventually boils down to the actions of the two brothers. While Bale got all of the attention, Wahlberg’s contribution as both actor and producer shouldn’t be underestimated, having trained for four years (and made six other films in the mean time), working to turn himself into a believable physical specimen for a world championship fighter.
The fights themselves are maybe the weak link, having neither the poetic beauty of a Raging Bull or the physical intensity of the Rocky movies. Director David O. Russell has chosen to portray much of the footage as if seen through a TV screen, which serves to distance the audience slightly from the experience, although the punches still land with a certain amount of weight. That style does succeed in capturing the shiny glamour of the Vegas lifestyle and why it would be so aspirational to a couple of fighters from the poor end of Massachusetts. There is a tension as to the eventual outcome throughout proceedings, and this is despite the fact that the general structure doesn’t really deviate all that much from the majority of other sports movies ever made, never mind boxing movies. Russell manages his actors well enough, but the film lacks any truly standout moments to elevate it to true greatness. Still, it’s a fascinating story and the family dynamics give it a certain feeling of freshness, but by the time the final bell rings we’re left with a film that doesn’t quite site at the top of the genre.
Why see it at the cinema: You’ll need a big screen to be able to differentiate between all of the seven sisters and their mother, but the cinema is also the best place to take in the razzmatazz of the fight scenes.
The Score: 8/10
The Review: True stories have always been a staple of cinema, and when it comes to recognition, either from audiences or their peers, then it’s sometimes the sheer magnitude of the events that can determine how much attention you should give. So try this one for size: guy gets arrested, tried and imprisoned for murder but proclaims his innocence. OK, you’re thinking, so far so typical, but then how about this: sister of imprisoned murderer believes his innocence but can’t find a way to convince anyone, and their poor background means they can’t afford fancy lawyers. So she decides to become a fancy lawyer herself, attempting to put herself through a degree, law school and then to attempt to overturn the conviction.
If it sounds like a TV movie of the week, then the material might well be a staple of that genre, but the acting talent here raises things up a level or two. Sam Rockwell is one of the most versatile actors of his generation, so manages to inhabit Kenny Waters successfully to the extent where he fully engages your sympathies, but that you still believe he might have been capable of the crime in question. Taking the other main role of his sister, and carrying the film for long stretches, is Hilary “I’ve got two Oscars me” Swank, portraying a naivety at first, then a grim determination to see her quest through, and at the same time rid herself of the giant Eighties hair she’s portrayed with at the start of the film.
This is one of the side effects of the passage of time the film portrays; not only through a large chunk of adulthood, but the film also has a choppy narrative which allows it to cast back to the childhood of Kenny and Betty Anne, putting valuable context around their later situations and strengthening the bond between them, so we can understand exactly why Betty Anne gave up such a large part of her life on this quest. There’s a few famous faces along the way, including Minne Driver as Betty Anne’s best friend at law school and Juliette Lewis as a key witness at the original trial; Melissa Leo has also picked up a Golden Globe this year for her efforts in The Fighter, but she may be the only one from this cast to trouble the engravers at awards time and her role here is tiny.
The reason for that is not the strength of the acting, which is at least good across the board, or the story itself which is compelling, but the direction, from Tony Goldwyn. You might remember him from such films as Disney’s Tarzan (he was Tarzan) or Ghost (he was the creepy bad guy), but you might not remember him from his other directorial efforts, which have been predominantly TV shows, and this TV background does show through, unfortunately. The story, despite its epic sweep through the characters’ lives, does occasionally get bogged down; at the point when one crucial piece of evidence is missing, the characters spend so long looking I was tempted to offer to help myself. The movie also leaves out one crucial detail about the lives of the characters after the events of the movie that could have put an entirely different, and possibly more interesting, spin on the outcome. That said, if true stories with good acting are your thing, then I’m convinced you’ll get something from Conviction.
Why see it at the cinema: It’s the performances more than the visuals that will draw you in on this occasion, although there is the occasional well-framed image that deserves a big screen outing.
The Score: 7/10