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David O. Russell, Mark Wahlberg, and Christian Bale deliver a near knockout family drama

The Fighter

Directed by David O. Russell

Opens Dec. 17.

The Fighter

is a sports movie in the same way that

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Solaris

is a science-fiction movie. Boxing is its omnipresent backdrop and what pushes it forward, but its soul, and its reason for being, has to do with something entirely different than blood and bruises and big dramatic final fights featuring an underdog and a totally dominating boxing legend as an adversary. All of which are, indeed, in

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The Fighter

, and such boxing flick norms will please a viewer on a testosterone mission, but by the time that big final fight happens you aren’t watching to see who wins. You’re watching to see the ultimate resolution of a wrenching family drama that is more compelling than a boxing ring could ever be.

And if you’re late and miss the “based on a true story” card at the movie’s start, you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking that tidy package of a conclusion is totally some Hollywood feel-good bullshit. But life works out that way sometimes too.

In 1993, Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg, reprising his Dirk Diggler dumb but nice guy to welcome effect) is a young fighter stuffed through some combination of television networks, promoters, and his money-grubbing mother/manager Alice (Melissa Leo) into a role as a “stepping stone”—the guy put into fights to lose so another, more promising boxer can advance. And through a couple of truly brutal fight scenes, you see that he is, in fact, very good at being a loser.

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At this point you may hate Alice and her whole small-town creepy family and their awful Massachusetts accents. Most especially, you will hate Micky’s brother Dicky (Christian Bale), a goofball at his very best and a derelict, barely repentant crack addict at his worst, which is most of the time. Dicky also happens to be Micky’s trainer, and mostly absent. So,

of course

, Micky is losing—which sets up

The Fighter

’s central tension between family and success.

For Micky, success means leaving mom and brother behind and, naturally, that tension builds and bursts. The result is one of boxing history’s more bizarre footnotes. Dicky was a would-be boxing champ from 10 years back, and an HBO documentary about him lurks around much of

The Fighter

’s periphery in the form of a rather cagey director and cameraman. We learn via a truly gut-stabbing reveal sequence that this HBO project isn’t about boxing or Dicky’s would-be “comeback” but a different small-town sensation gaining traction in the early ’90s. And, quite suddenly, the entire country learns that Dicky’s teeth are fucked up for a reason that has nothing to do with boxing.

There’s a sweet girl, too, in Micky’s life, the no-bullshit Charlene (Amy Adams), whom Micky’s crass female relatives hiss and call an “MTV girl” because she had the misfortune to go to college. And in this Lowell, Mass., that appears to be about the equivalent of carrying a copy of

Gravity's Rainbow

around the quad. But she’s smart and motivates Micky to get things going for himself, and it turns out he’s actually really good at this boxing thing. But it means turning his back on his family, which is something people with wicked Massachusetts accents just don’t do. Besides, maybe the Ward family isn’t that bad deep down.

David O. Russell (

Three Kings

,

I Heart Huckabees

) bests himself easily on style here, getting all kinds of opportunities to play with old TV formats and camerawork. Much homework was done with old ESPN boxing footage, and it’s fairly refreshing to see sports done in a current movie that isn’t trying to sell the idea of sport itself, as in the hyperstylization of something like

Any Given Sunday

. No whiz-bang flash cuts or bonus blood—just boxing shot in the way that a boxing fan would see it on television in 1993. It adds to an interesting and mostly effective jumble of viewpoints: You’re a boxing spectator and inside Micky’s skin and snared in a historical docudrama.

That shifting point of view can be a bit much, and occasionally Russell’s directorial flourishes border on the too self-aware. But Wahlberg and Bale—his gaunt, torn-up nice guy Dicky gets special props—keep

The Fighter

enough about real people, people who are shredded on the inside, that Russell can have his indie-lite tricks.

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