Layered, tough "Fighter" rounds up terrific performances

The Fighter (2010) 
115 min., rated R.
Grade: A -

“Irish” Micky Ward may be the boxing hero but he's the least showy; that would be Dickie Eklund, his crackhead half-brother and trainer. Though it's hard to not compare this with "Rocky" or "Raging Bull," David O. Russell's true-life boxing drama "The Fighter" is a tough, gritty, all-around convincing knockout. Not only does it have the ring scenes but plenty of character nuance and dysfunctional family dynamics/hysterics. 

The “prodigal son” underdog of this story is Micky (Mark Wahlberg), a 30-year-old street sweeper in Lowell, Massachusetts who is being groomed to be a “stepping stone” boxer. He trains in the gym with an '80s local legend, his older half-brother Dicky (Christian Bale), a self-destructive crack addict and former pro Welterweight boxer that supposedly knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard. There's a theory that Sugar Ray may have just tripped. Hovering over Micky are the expectations of his town of hard, bruised trash, especially his clinging family, led by mama grizzly Alice (Melissa Leo) and backed up by his seven sourpuss sisters. To make matters worse, Dicky is unreliable, living in a crack house of crazies, and Micky has to ask himself if his biggest ally is actually his greatest liability. 

Credible and fight-ready in and out of the ring, and capable of more range than he's estimated, Wahlberg (who trained for four years and also produced, it being near home to his Boston birth place) is the dimmest but most appealing of his screaming tribe. Disappearing into the role of Dicky, Bale is scary-phenomenal, conveying the live-wire humor and manic depth. And having shed weight (again, after The Machinist diet), this Batman looks hard-lived and gaunt. And wow, Leo is utterly unrecognizable here, in a bleach-blonde poof, tacky wardrobe and nails, as she's transformed into the feisty-as-all-hell mother Alice, accompanied by her Irish chorus of foul-mouthed, big-haired daughters. She makes sure her Alice never succumbs to caricature, even if it's a steely, over-the-top performance. Amy Adams, formerly playing friendly ditzy roles, is at her smartest and toughest as college dropout-turned barmaid Charlene, also Micky's new girlriend, with an attitude and a backbone. Bullied by Micky's sistas and called a “slut” and an “MTV girl,” her scene of throwing a punch at one of them in the kissa is a crowd-pleaser. These are all commanding, three-dimensional performances. Even the mostly unknown seven playing Micky's gaggle of sisters, who sit around the living room housing Budweisers, are colorful but feel real and are perfectly cast (one of which is Conan O'Brien's sister, Kate). Also, the real Mickey O'Keefe plays himself as a police officer and Micky's fight trainer. 

Director Russell (when it was to be originally helmed by "Black Swan" director Darren Aronofsky) immerses us in this rough blue-collar New England town, where the look and feel of it are so vivid you can nearly smell the flavor and atmosphere. The fight scenes throughout are shot in the style of HBO-TV and are so realistic and ('scuse the pun) punchy, showing the brutality, that they feel voyeuristic. One minor nitpick is during Micky and Charlene's date, where a Citizens Bank can be seen in the background, but the logo didn't come around until around 2005, going against the movie's '90s period. "The Fighter" is still a richly satisfying film, despite being wrapped up by the predictable Big Fight (Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby" rejected this). And stick around for the ending credits to see footage of the real Mickey and Dickie.