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

Film Choice

French adultery Sixties style is explored in the classic Silken Skin, starring the late, great Françoise Dorléac. The film is re-released, and also features in the Truffaut retrospective at BFI Southbank. Peter Mullan's Neds tells a tale of knives, feuds and platform heels in Seventies Glasgow, and features a terrific debut by Conor McCarron.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week