Alternate Title: Rocky Mark and the Crazy Bunch
One sentence synopsis: A working-class boxer tries to get a shot at the title while dealing with his crazy family, domineering mother, and drug-addicted, ex-boxer brother.
Things Havoc liked: I've seen Christian Bale in bad films. Terminator Salvation and Reign of Fire come to mind. But even in the worst of films, no matter how much of an asshole he may be off-screen, Bale is always good, and often amazing. In this movie, he is the latter. He plays a crack-addicted washed up ex-boxer lowlife who once knocked Sugar Ray Leonard down in a fight and is sufficiently delusional that he thinks he's going to make a comeback. It is painful to watch him, but that's the intention here, so I can't fault it. He looks emaciated, sunken, and in a perpetual drug-addled stupor from which periodic flashes of the competent boxer he was occasionally manage to bubble to the surface. I didn't see all the movies nominated for supporting actor this year, but he was good enough in my book.
I'm not a Mark Wahlberg fan, by and large. Once in a while, he turns in a really good performance, such as his showstopper in The Departed. Usually though, whenever he plays a nice guy, it comes across as schmaltzy. In this case, however, while I don't think he was as good as Bale, he sold me on it. He underplays the role considerably, and yet he sells it, locking up all his anger, an odd choice for a boxer, but one that feels surprisingly real. Moreover, he looks the part, having reportedly trained for four years in order to convincingly play this character (he is a personal friend of the real-life boxer). He didn't make me a fan, but he convinced me for this role.
The rest of the cast varies between adequate and excellent. Melissa Leo (who won best supporting actress) is the latter. She is an evil harpy of a woman who clearly doesn't recognize what a cancer she is. There are scenes where I wanted to set the screen on fire just to get rid of her. Amy Adams has some of the best lines in the movie, and does a very good job.
Things Havoc disliked: I know that I'm supposed to ignore hype walking into a movie, but this thing was pitched to me as an academy-award level film, nominated for seven awards, including picture, and winning two of them. People I respect told me this was a superb film.
It is not.
To begin with, the direction is amateurish and sloppy. I'm no film student. I don't get a hard-on over walk-and-talk shots or novel uses of New Wave technique. But even I could tell that the pacing in this movie was crap and that many of the shots were badly put together. There are glaring moments where the shot is artificially constructed so that we never get a good look at the participants because an obvious stunt double is performing them. I don't object to the use of stunt doubles (and to be fair, none of the boxing is done by doubles), but a child could manufacture the scene so as to hide it better than that. The movie's pacing, particularly towards the end, is terrible, racing through payoff scenes that are desperately important to the plot and padding out others that don't matter at all. Subplots (such as Wahlberg's daughter) are simply dropped after they've provided their emotional punch, spoiling the generally realistic feel that the movie maintains throughout.
Moreover, while Wahlberg does look like a boxer, this movie has some of the worst boxing in it that I've seen since the bad Rocky sequels. I'm not a boxing fan, but I've seen a fight or two in my time. What this movie shows us instead is about as realistic as rock 'em sock 'em robots. Boxers stand in the middle of the ring and trade blows, or bunch one another up against the ropes and wail against one another's defenses, making no attempts to duck and weave, never sidestepping or circling, and shrugging off punches to the face that, from a professional boxer, could lay a man dead on the canvas, as if they were in a hollywood fistfight. Yes, it's nicely photographed, and there are a couple of nice moments (Wahlberg's knockout kidney punch in one fight is actually kind of awesome). Yes, movie fights are unrealistic normally. But this is a movie about boxing with a boxing match that has maintained a credible line of realism all the way through, not Indiana Jones. Rocky Balboa (the most recent one) had much better boxing in it than this film.
It also had a better plot.
Yes, this one is a true story, yadda yadda yadda. True stories do not obviate the need to make your movie work. Not to say that this movie doesn't work, but it doesn't work totally, and tragically, it's the last third or so that falls apart. The ending is way too pat (no spoilers), and the movie itself, after being so serious and real, turns, at risk of sounding repetitive, into a Rocky movie at the end. The final boxer that Wahlberg must face is arbitrarily and for no good reason at all, turned into a bad guy (more kick-the-dog moments, though mercifully less overt), and all the usual cliches are there. The only thing that keeps those scenes from reverting to utter dreck is the excellent performances by Wahlberg and especially Bale.
Final thoughts: This is not a bad movie, by any means. It's not even a mediocre movie. But it never rises above the level of "decent". Excellent acting and writing, particularly in the first two thirds, are let down badly by the bad direction, the poor quality fighting, the horrid pacing, and the trite storyline. How this thing got so much critical acclaim, I will never understand. Still, I would recommend it if you're looking for something to see, particularly if you're a fan of Bale or (god help you) Wahlberg.
Final Score: 6/10