Dicky Eklund of Lowell, Mass., lived a life in one tick—one solitary moment when the boxer stood toe-to-toe with the great Sugar Ray Leonard … and knocked the man down.
His whole life before led to that tick. His whole life after has been in tragic decline. So he relives that moment, again and again. In it, he is the man he wants to be, the man he could've been. He has nothing else.
But now, HBO's come to town. They're here because I knocked down Sugar Ray, he thinks. They're here to tell the story of "The Pride of Lowell." They're here to film my comeback.
And so the tape rolls as Dicky showboats for the camera, as he spars with his brother (a struggling fighter named Micky Ward), as he preens and prances down the street like a bell-capped fool. They capture his skeletal face, his decaying teeth, his fraying mind as he leads them to the upper floor of a crack house. The lens never wavers as he sucks chemicals into his lungs.
The camera crew did come for Dicky Eklund. They came to film his fall.
But there's someone else the crew captures: patient, quiet Micky, the boy who idolized the Pride of Lowell, the man who followed him into the ring.
There's no real flash about Micky, no sense of style or self-promotion. Their mother and manager, Alice, heaps praise on Dicky and pays little mind to his younger brother. No matter that Micky's fights are keeping the family afloat now. No matter that he, not Dicky, is the only one with enough on the ball to find his way to the gym.
HBO leaves without paying Micky much mind. They've got their story. But perhaps there's another to be told. Perhaps someone else is building to a moment of his own—a moment not to be squandered, but savored. Not a tick, but a brick to build on. Perhaps there's someone who can make Lowell truly proud.
Outside the ring, Micky doesn't like to fight. Compared to off-the-wall Dicky and off-the-handle Alice, he comes across as practically pacifistic, quietly trying to keep the peace among the members of his circle. It's a tall order, given how fractious it is: Dicky, Alice and a cavalcade of nameless sisters fall into one camp, while his father (George), girlfriend (Charlene) and current trainer (Mickey O'Keefe) land in another. But he finally succeeds in nudging them all into an uneasy truce.
Micky's family is a top-to-bottom mess, but its members manage to project a little love, too. Alice wants to believe the best of Dicky, and seems nearly inconsolable when he disappoints her. Charlene may be foul-mouthed and combative, but she gives Micky some much-needed stability and good, grounded advice. Micky's been pulled away from his daughter by her mother, but he's not giving up, and he's trying to connect more.
Dicky undergoes the biggest transformation of all. Arrested and thrown in prison for numerous sundry activities, he's practically a rock star behind bars, and when the HBO documentary on him airs, the telecast becomes a whole-prison party with Dicky as its guest of honor. But when he sees the show, particularly his own son onscreen, he realizes the wasteland his life's become. He flips off the television, saying, "He [my son] needs me, and I'm f‑‑‑ing stuck in here!"
[Spoiler Warning] Dicky begins exercising again, and when he's finally released from prison, he appears to be a new man. He heads over to Micky's gym, telling him that the idea of helping him train was the only thing that kept him going. When Micky tells him he's not wanted … that Charlene and his current manager made Micky promise to keep Dicky away from training, Dicky's crestfallen. Eventually, he knocks on Charlene's door to plead his case. "I will quit if you want me to quit," Dicky says, telling her that Micky needs her more than he needs him. But he'd dearly love to stay. And when Charlene says that Micky and she are trying to make something of themselves—Dicky tells her, "I am too." And it's true. He stays clean, and when Micky wins a title fight, Dicky celebrates as if it was his own triumph.
Shortly after Dicky watches himself on HBO, we see him bow his head, apparently in prayer, while kneeling on the floor. Then, just before he's released from prison, we see him pray again. Both Micky and Dicky appear to bow in prayer after the climactic title fight. Micky has a cross hanging in his apartment, and Dicky wears one around his neck. When Charlene and Micky's trainer storm out of the gym, Alice tells Micky, "Maybe it's for the best. God has a plan."
Bikini-clad women carry the round numbers in the boxing ring. Charlene wears revealing shirts and short, tight shorts at the bar where she works, which encourages folks to leer. In fact, the first time she meets Micky, she asks him if he's just going to stare at her rear all day. Charlene says George stares too.
We see Micky and Charlene in the mid-stages of foreplay: She's in thin bra and panties, he's shirtless, and he runs her hands over her body as they lie in bed together. They share several passionate kisses.
Dicky, meanwhile, has a girlfriend whom he essentially sells into prostitution. We see her standing in the street, stroking her breasts through a bikini top, enticing drivers to stop. Then, as she performs sex acts with them in the front seat of their cars, Dicky pretends to be a police officer busting them: She steals the guys' money while they're distracted.
Alice and Micky's sisters can't stand Charlene, referring to her as an "MTV girl" and whispering that they've heard she's into "threesomes." They repeatedly call her a "skank" to her face. Others make crass sexual allusions and double entendres.
For their first date, Micky takes Charlene to a French film that, in her words, didn't even have "any good sex in it."
Boxing has been around since biblical times, and over the centuries it's developed a great deal of strategy and subtlety. Matches can be almost as complex as chess and as graceful as a ballet. But none of that alters the fact that, at its core, boxing is about beating the living tar out of someone.
Never mind that Micky and Dicky are on friendly terms with many of their opponents. Since a good chunk of The Fighter takes place inside the ring, we see them deliver and receive countless blows to heads and bodies, some of which look like they hurt tremendously. When Micky takes on a man 20 pounds heavier than he is, blood spatters the mat (one of the bikini girls slips in it), and Micky's face ends up looking like a grated potato. Bandages are a regular part of his post-fight attire.
Outside the ring, things don't get much better. Dicky is arrested for assaulting a number of people in a crowded street, including a pair of police officers. When Micky tries to intervene, policemen pin him down on the hood of a cruiser and hammer his hand with a baton, shattering it. Alice hits George with dishes and pans when she learns he helped set up a deal with a new trainer, which essentially cut her out of her son's career. Charlene and one of Micky's sisters get into a brawl on Charlene's front porch. Micky roughs up a guy in a bar for disrespecting Charlene.
Tired of hearing his mother coo over Dicky's skill and talent while the two spar, Micky gets angry and strikes Dicky hard in the kidney, then hammers his head as his brother crouches on the canvas. Dicky hits the side of a gym locker—an act imitated by his young son.
Crude or Profane Language
Close to 150 f-words are interlaced with nearly 30 s-words and a bevy of other crudities, ranging from "a‑‑" and "d‑‑k" to "d‑‑n" and "h‑‑‑." Jesus' and God's names are each abused about 10 times. Obscene gestures are made.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Dicky and many of his buddies are crack addicts, and we see them using. We also see what it does to them. Dicky is little more than a shell of his former self. And he goes through horrible withdrawal symptoms when he lands in jail. So there's no glamorization going on here.
Alice chain-smokes. Charlene admits that she had to leave college because she was drinking and partying too much. Now she says that if she couldn't drink on the job, she might not make it through the day. She's not alone. Nearly everyone drinks in her world—beer, wine, shots, mixed drinks.
Other Negative Elements
We learn that Dicky has been arrested 27 times. He begs Micky to lie for him (again) to keep him out of prison. (Micky refuses this time.) Dicky and Alice tell Micky that he shouldn't trust anyone but them: After all (they say), who could care for you better than family? But that doesn't stop them from setting up fights Micky has no business fighting … just for a paycheck. Dicky tries to get some of his Cambodian girlfriend's relatives involved in a pyramid scheme.
You've just read about The Fighter's sex, violence and 150 f-words. So I don't have to spend much time driving home the point that this is a hard-R movie—two hours of crude content that knocks moviegoers down for the count. Yet I saw kids 8-10 years old at the screening I attended, and had I more Alice or Charlene in me, I would've accused their parents of child abuse.
Those kids probably didn't learn much from The Fighter—except how to string together swear words and land a hard right hook. But in the midst of all the content, there is still a story to be told, and it even has a moral in the middle of the mess.
"I'm not going to let you or your family take me down," Charlene tells Micky. So the tension found here is whether Micky—good, quiet Micky—has the wherewithal to keep his own family from pulling him down too.
Plugged In belongs to an organization called Focus on the Family, which believes that the family can be a wonderful, beautiful thing—a foundation on which to build, a nest from which to soar. We believe the family is an integral part of God's plan. But we also know that no family is perfect, and some are incredibly, perhaps irrevocably, fractured. Homes can be unhealthy, soul-sapping places … and yet we're called to still love the flawed people who surround us with our hearts and our souls.
The Fighter is about a family full of hurt and harm. A mother loves her children, yet uses them too. A brother lives in a haze of drugs and old dreams. A girlfriend lives without compromise, without accommodation to anything or anyone. And at the center of it all, Micky lives as a man who has a chance to find his own special moment, if only he could get a little help.
Plugged In can't help but root for him to get it.
The Fighter is based on a true story, and like most true stories that make their way to the screen, this one has an ending that's not all tied up in a bow. I didn't get a sense that the two factions in Micky's life ever became truly one. And the coda hints that Dicky doesn't stay off drugs forever. Truth, after all, tends to be more bittersweet than fiction, more "yes, but" than "happily ever after."
Micky's family members may not like each other very much. But they love Micky, and they care enough for him and each other to, for a tick, set aside their own issues and help him reach a special moment of his own. And when he claims that moment, they share it with him.
You could say Micky's moment is smothered—and by more things than just The Fighter's extreme content. You'd probably be right. But it is still at least a tick of redemption.