The Fighter, David O Russell, 115 mins (15)

Mark Wahlberg is a boxer who gets an emotional bruising from his family, in a gritty true story that has made Oscar contenders out of its director and supporting cast

Until now, the name David O Russell had not mattered to me greatly.

I wasn't wild about his pumped-up Gulf War oddity Three Kings, and I - Huckabees suggested a man with no sense of humour trying for a piece of Wes Anderson's madcap cachet. But The Fighter is really something. Maybe it helped that Russell didn't write this one, but inherited a solid script. It's given him freedom to direct, quite simply. He's more restrained than before, and more confident – The Fighter has an honest, uncluttered cleanness, but plenty of oomph too.\

This is not a boxing film as such, more a story about characters who have boxing in their lives. Based on real people, it's set in the 1990s in the dilapidated town of Lowell, Mass, where the local hero is Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), a former champ whose claim to fame is that he once felled Sugar Ray Leonard. Now it's the turn of younger half-brother Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) to shine in the ring, with Dicky training him. Only Dicky can't be counted on, as he's addicted to crack.

Micky is good – maybe not that good – but it seems as if the young contender hardly has a chance. Furiously rooting for him, but using him to relive her older boy's glory, is mother Alice, backed by a phalanx of fearsome adult daughters, platinum bruisers with nicknames such as "Pork" and "Red Dog". Played by the superb Melissa Leo, Alice is a memorable creation – Sopranos memorable, in fact. She's axe-hard under a Tammy Wynette hairdo, with a tender way of calling her boys "sweetheart" that sounds like a homicidal menace.

In Micky's corner, meanwhile, is his new girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams), who's more than the equal of the Eklund women, and ready to slug them in the jaw if it comes to it. There's a terrific cold face-off between Charlene and Alice when they first meet, which is testament to a fine script (Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson) as well as to Adams's and Leo's whip-smart energies. "I've heard a lot about you," says Alice. "I've heard a lot about you too," replies Charlene. "What's that supposed to mean?" – "Same thing you meant." It's fabulous seeing Amy Adams spit vinegar like this. She had cornered the market as Hollywood's Nice Girl (Enchanted, Julie & Julia) but here she's raunchy, abrasive, sexy – and we know, as soon as she clamps herself to Micky's arm on his mom's sofa, that she's ready to go to war to protect him.

Christian Bale's no slouch, as usual: if he doesn't quite chew the scenery, it's no doubt because he's on his usual emaciation diet. His Dicky is twitchy, desperate, narcissistic and surprisingly funny. There's not much obvious comic potential in crack addiction, but The Fighter convincingly finds the farce – notably in Dicky's habit of leaping out of the first-floor window whenever Mom comes visiting.

Among such high-octane performances, Wahlberg – the only principal here to miss out on an Oscar nomination – might seem to fade into the furniture. His challenge is to play Micky as a mild, rueful kind of slugger, passive when it comes to resisting his family. But don't underestimate his playing – Wahlberg is the approachable centre of the film. The scene in which Charlene tends his bruises after a fight depends on the actor convincing us that Micky's vulnerability has charmed her, and he certainly achieves that.

There's a lot of directorial pizzazz, like the camera, early on, wheeling backwards to coast up Lowell's grim streets; or Dicky pelting across town to the gym, while the tick-tick of Micky's punchbag sets the pace. But the flourishes register as exuberance rather than show. Russell is primarily interested in people here, and he captures the threats and tendernesses, the wary defensive conversations, in this vibrantly acted piece.

The boxing itself matters less than the emotional bruising, but Russell manages the matches sparely, resisting the temptation of Raging Bull-style poetry, and filtering them through TV coverage, with commentators talking through the action. Far from distancing the fights, this brings them closer, as if we were watching them live on TV ourselves. In fact, TV is a theme throughout: Micky is being filmed by a HBO documentary crew, and when he goes to prison, can't wait for the other inmates to see it – but recoils in shock when he realises the programme is actually about his addiction. There's also a nice moment when Alice's daughters can't think of any better way to disparage Charlene than saying she's "like one of those MTV girls".

All of this isn't clever-dick media winking – The Fighter just takes place in a world in which people watch TV and want badly to be on it. It's a real world, and The Fighter's unpretentious kitchen-sink pragmatism makes this one of the more level-headed of Hollywood dramas about sport. It doesn't take end-credits footage of the real Eklund and Ward to persuade us we're watching something close to the pulse of reality. That's what makes this nervy, urgent film one of the most credible titles on this year's Oscars list. David O Russell, as they say, "coulda been a contender" – and now, at last, he is.

Next Week:

Jonathan Romney saddles up with the Coen brothers as they remake western classic True Grit

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