The Fighter (15)

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo

David O Russell's The Fighter is a terrific sports movie that has hardly any sport in it. It's nominally a boxing picture, but in the first hour it spends no more than three minutes inside the ring. Not that it lacks for rage, or ugly confrontation, or even fisticuffs; it's just that most of it goes on in people's front rooms, or on the streets of the tough working-class town where it's set. The big fight in this film isn't about a belt or a title; it's a fight for self-respect, and for the possession of your own life.

Based on the true story of a Massachusetts welterweight who became a cult hero in the 1990s, The Fighter turns on the axis of two major performances. Christian Bale plays Dickie Eklund, a twitchy, loudmouth ex-fighter whose claim to fame is knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard during a bout in 1978 (and don't try telling him that Leonard slipped). With his eyes rolling like mercury and his frame a loose bag of bones, Bale has put himself through the ringer again, albeit not so severely as his emaciated loner in The Machinist. We find out why. Dickie thinks the HBO film crew on his tail is preparing a documentary on his comeback; in fact they're researching how he became a crack addict. Mark Wahlberg plays his younger half-brother, Micky Ward, a mild-mannered boxer who really might have a shot at success if only he dumped his unreliable trainer – Dickie – and got himself a professional team. "I can't do it without him," he says. "You're already doin' it without him," replies his old coach, after another no-show from Dickie, last seen falling out of a crack-house window.

Their mother, Alice, a flinty bottle-blonde, turns a blind eye to such dead-end behaviour. She regards herself and Dickie as the twin proprietors of Micky's career, for the simple reason that they're family. Did I say two great performances? Make it three, because Melissa Leo is formidable as this hard-nut matriarch, presiding over her raucous clan (including seven big-haired daughters) with a will of steel and a gaze like Medusa's. When her husband dares to cross her he gets a frying-pan in his mush. But the spirit of the "fighting Irish" is not here an unequivocal force for good, and gradually we see that Micky's loyalty to his family might be costing him his career. When Alice and Dickie persuade him at short notice to fight a scary-looking bruiser 20 pounds heavier, Micky gets the crap beaten out of him, but their attitude doesn't budge: he's got to fight, "or nobody gets paid".

This family, embroiled in love and hate, might sound rather dour, yet Russell, perhaps enjoying the pugilistic mood – he once threatened to beat up George Clooney during the filming of Three Kings – also draws out the wit in the screenplay (by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson). The family pow-wows that seem just a whisker away from a brawl are given comic edge on the appearance of Charlene (Amy Adams), the bartender whom Micky falls for. Adams, usually the ditzy kook of romantic comedies, cuts against the grain as a woman who's known the hard knocks and won't be anyone's fool. When Micky takes her on a first date to see a subtitled film, she's hugely unimpressed by his choice: "There wasn't even any good sex in it. I had to read the whole fucking movie." This will not be the masochistic battle of wills that inflamed the Cathy Moriarty-Robert De Niro relationship in Raging Bull. Charlene's battle isn't with Micky, in any case, it's with Alice, the Raging Heifer, who looks ready to trade blows herself once the girlfriend-outsider takes on the role of Micky's champion.

In this combustible atmosphere it's Mark Wahlberg's performance that you notice. His gentleness is the still centre of a domestic storm; while Bale blusters away, hoisting the older sibling's coulda-been-a-contender legend, Micky just sits there, half-affectionate, half-embarrassed, not because he knows he's the star but because he's too kind to expose Dickie's delusions. Wahlberg, a fan of the real-life Ward, waited for years for this movie to be made (it was originally taken on by Darren Aronofsky, before he jumped ship to direct Black Swan) and even had his own boxing-ring built so that he could physically get up to snuff. Though Bale will probably win the awards, it's Wahlberg who anchors the movie and makes the space for everyone else to go nuts in.

How the familial discord is resolved hustles the film, perhaps inevitably, into a more conventional shape. There has to be a reconciliation, just as there has to be a title-shot fight in which Micky shows his mettle. The ring scenes, filmed in digital, have a rare whiplash intensity, soundtracked by the jabber of Micky's corner men and the baying crowds; these scenes are punkishly raw and realistic where Raging Bull created a kind of angular poetry. It isn't a question of which is better: both of them work, because both come of film-making devotion and craft. The Fighter has earned the right to its triumphal close, for the groundwork has been done in the movie's first half as a family tears itself apart, seemingly beyond repair. Amid the blood and thunder it is actually a sombre study in how loyalty can pervert and damage love. Should we call it a knock-out? Rather too much delicacy about it for that, I think, but it certainly has what a boxing writer once called "boom-boom" in its gloves.

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