The Fighter
Directed by David O. Russell
Starring:  Christian Bale,
Mark Wahlberg, Amy Adams
Rated R for language throughout, drug content, some violence
and sexuality
1 hr. 55 min.

Ignore The Fighter’s trailer. It gives away the majority of the plot, sets up a premise derivative of Rocky and clearly angles the film as the generic inspirational sports entry of the holiday season (à la a grittier Blind Side). Aside from the palpable buzz surrounding the physical transformation of a scarily gaunt Christian Bale, nothing appeared to differentiate the movie from similar recent titles like Russell Crowe’s ill-named boxing movie  Cinderella Man or Mark Wahlberg’s own syrupy football flick Invincible.

Thankfully, the film isn’t merely a sports movie, it’s a fully realized drama and a cautionary tale of drug abuse, familial strife and small-town ego-stroking. It’s also the product of an extraordinary script, written in part by Scott Silver (8 Mile), and a director, David O. Russell (I Heart Huckabees), who clearly knows how to wring the best out of the talent he works with.

Set in Lowell, Mass., The Fighter bases itself on the true story of the relationship of two brothers who would become local legends. Christian Bale fully inhabits Dicky, a once-promising boxer who lives off the afterglow of his former victories and harbors an increasingly destructive crack addiction. His younger, overlooked brother is Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a quieter, almost broken figure whose career has been grossly mismanaged by his oblivious mother, doormat father and fatally flawed siblings. He’s a “stepping stone” boxer — someone who gets beat up for a living to advance the careers of other up-and-coming fighters.

When the film begins, an HBO camera crew is trailing Dicky, ostensibly to document the aging boxer’s “comeback.”

Micky has been set up for a few bouts, but isn’t given nearly the attention he deserves. As a result, he’s on a confidence-busting losing streak, and his family doesn’t appear to care — they just use him for the cash he gets when he’s beaten to a pulp.

Micky’s savior comes in the form of a certain tough-talking barmaid, Charlene (Amy Adams), who catches his eye on one bleary night. After a few awkward dates, she morphs into his fiercest advocate and — in one particularly entertaining scene — dresses down her new boyfriend’s army of disagreeable, unsightly sisters and mother. It is Charlene from whom Micky draws his strength to break away from his family and to draw a line in the sand to give the fighter a chance to make a run at the welterweight title.

After a string of middling films for Bale (Terminator), Wahlberg  (The Other Guys) and Adams (Leap Year), The Fighter gives all of them a proper showcase for their considerable talents. Bale delivers a wild-eyed, strung-out, gut-wrenching performance of an addict who’s losing his teeth, hair and body mass in a seedy drug-laden apartment.

Adams plays Charlene as a thoughtful, yet beer-guzzling, former party-girl who’s equally skilled as manager and life-coach of Micky. She’s anything but a place-holding girlfriend to his aspiring champion boxer.

In between these two-scene stealers — either of whom may take home an Oscar nomination — Mark Wahlberg is content to play down most of his character’s inner turmoil. He lets Christian Bale steal the audience’s laughs and tears and focuses the majority of his work in the ring. And after reportedly spending years training for the role as the project was in development, Wahlberg comes across entirely real as a welterweight boxer.

While The Fighter appears to follow a formula paved by genre classics like Rocky, it veers from its forebears at the moment the HBO episode of Dicky’s “comeback” is revealed to be a cautionary documentary about crack addiction. 

From then on, the boxing feels like the backdrop to a tale of two brothers and a barmaid who helps repair their relationship by nudging one toward greatness.

erik@vcreporter.com