Boxing tale packs a punch

LESS STYLISH than Raging Bull, less euphoric than the Rocky films, The Fighter (US/15A/115 mins) is a boxing movie made in the image of its hero, ‘Irish’ Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a solid but unspectacular Irish-American scrapper who slugged his way to a shot at the world title in the mid-’90s.

As it’s based on real-life events, David O Russell’s film depends for its tension on events outside the ring, as Micky battles the gravitational pull of a parasitical extended family, led by his manager-mother Alice (Melissa Leo), that threatens to scupper his hopes and dreams.

Chief parasite, however, and the element that gives The Fighter a badly needed edge, is Micky’s brother Dicky (Christian Bale), a one-time contender and Micky’s crack addict trainer. In fact, Dickie’s fall from grace is more fascinating than Micky’s rise through the ranks, just as Dicky (“I’m squirrelly as f**k”) was a more compelling boxer to watch. But as the traditional three-act Hollywood drama demands victory real and moral as the credits roll, Wahlberg takes centre stage.

It’s a difficult role, not least because Leo’s screeching harridan and Bale’s twitchy junkie are scene-stealers at every turn, but Wahlberg the actor is as quietly focused and resilient as Micky is in the ring, absorbing the punishment with a quiet dignity that provides the story with its heart. Having ringside commentators eulogise Micky’s unique style of taking punishment before lashing out with a fight-winning punch undermines the film’s claims to authenticity (they’d never heard of Ali’s ‘rope-a-dope’ against Foreman?), and boxing fans will be further disappointed that the story ends before Ward climbs into the ring with Arturo Gatti for what became a trilogy of now-legendary fights.

For those less immersed in boxing, however, the three main performances and Russell’s convincingly scuzzy depiction of the Wards’ white-trash background ensures the audience will be rooting to see Micky escape his humble origins and be crowned champ.

A HEARTBREAKING tale of living with the death of a child, Rabbit Hole (US/15A/90 mins) concerns itself with how married couple Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) adopt different strategies in order to cope with their loss. Ostensibly reasonable and grounded, Howie struggles to suppress a smouldering rage; meanwhile, Becca simply shuts down and refuses to access her emotions, constructing a brittle façade that begins to crack when her feckless sister, Izzy (Tammy Blanchard), announces she’s pregnant.

John Cameron Mitchell’s film observes the obsequies with a funereal pace, and its hushed tone only emphasises the household’s absence of child-inspired noise and mayhem. Kidman is perfectly cast as the frigid and almost robotic Becca, while Eckhart is quietly impressive as the bewildered Howie, who constantly, unconsciously, subverts his own expressed wish to move past the tragedy. When it comes, as we know it must, Kidman’s outpouring of raw grief is poignantly done, precipitated as it is by the perverse relationship she strikes up with Jason (Miles Teller), the teenager who was driving the car that killed her son.

DIRECTING his own adaptation of the Graham Greene novel Brighton Rock (UK/16/110 mins), Rowan Joffe updates the setting from the 1930s to the ’60s, charting the rise and fall of hoodlum Pinkie (Sam Riley) against a backdrop of Mods and Rockers clashing on Brighton beach.

Violent times or not, Riley’s Pinkie is a superb study in sustained menace, an immoral and soulless thug who, perversely, lives in terror of eternal damnation. Virtually everything else about Joffe’s film is unconvincing, however, including the ramshackle fight scenes, Andrea Riseborough’s pivotal but tentative turn as Pinkie’s girl Rose, and Andy Serkis as the oily crime lord Mr Colleoni.

The original Brighton Rock (1947) was a compelling example of seedy British noir. Joffe’s version crumbles under the weight of its self-important mythologising long before the laughable non sequitur of the final scene.

SANCTUM (US/15A/108 mins), aka ‘James Cameron’s Sanctum’, is The Abyss without the aliens, The Descent without the creepy crawlers. Exploring the world’s largest unmapped cave system in New Guinea, an expedition led by veteran caver Frank (Richard Roxburgh) gets trapped underground when a storm floods the caves from above. The group’s only hope of survival is to swim through the tunnels, following an ancient, subterranean river to its outlet on the coast, and so begins a fast-paced action adventure.

Unfortunately, James Cameron is on producing duties here, and director Alistair Grierson has fashioned no more than a workmanlike tale that provides as many twists and turns as you might expect from an unexplored cave system, but which lacks for real tension. In effect it’s an archetypal coming-of-age myth, as grizzled Frank hands on the real and metaphorical torch to his idealistic son Josh (Rhys Wakefield), but the occasional vicarious thrill of sub-aquatic claustrophobia apart, this damp squib fizzles only fitfully.

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