If prize groups gave out an "If" award (thank you, Rudyard Kipling) for a performer who keeps his head while all about him are losing theirs, this year it would have to go to Mark Wahlberg for "The Fighter."

The fact-based movie is a raucous, energetic boxing story that has been compared to both "Rocky" and "Raging Bull."


How could it not be? With Wahlberg as good-guy underdog fighter Micky Ward and Christian Bale as his destructive, ex-contender crack addict half-brother, Dicky, it's as if Rocky and Jake LaMotta were siblings -- and had Ma Barker as a mother.

Their mom (Melissa Leo), who sets herself up as Micky's manager and Dicky as his trainer, is an Oedipal nightmare. It's almost too good that Micky's brother is named Dicky, because, as in the old Smothers Brothers routine, Mom really does love Dicky best.

With working-class Lowell, Massachusetts as a backdrop the movie has the kind of true grit that guarantees awards these days more than the wit of "True Grit."

Director David O. Russell pitches every scene so high that the film threatens to become more wearying than entertaining or enlightening. It's an honest crowd-pleaser, but it really isn't in the same class as "The Social Network" or "The King's Speech."

The one who keeps you watching is Wahlberg. He pulls off a feet-on-the-ground character by playing him close to the vest.

He portrays Micky as a man who starts out as a patsy, then keeps withdrawing from the family melodrama around him -- and quietly working on the greater game of manhood -- until he's in a position to set everything right.

And Amy Adams, as Micky's lover, partners him fiercely but also beautifully. She makes the battle over a man between his mother and his girl as charged as any prizefight.

Micky's reticence isn't always heroic -- he lets his girl fight some key battles for him -- but it is always credible. And Wahlberg follows through on it in the ring, with patience and wariness and surprising power.

If the whole film were better keyed to its hero, Micky, instead of its antihero, Dicky, Wahlberg would be duking it out with Colin Firth and Jesse Eisenberg for best actor honors. Instead, Wahlberg is doing what Micky does in the movie: making everyone else's success possible.