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IMAGE: Christian Bale, Mark Wahlberg
Mark Wahlberg plays the title character in "The Fighter," but it's Christian Bale as his brother who steals the show.
updated 12/7/2010 12:12:45 PM ET 2010-12-07T17:12:45

Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale's "The Fighter" is a punch-drunk tale whose fitful ramble from Jerry Springer-style family seaminess to "Rocky"-like triumph is elevated enormously by knockout performances.

Less a boxing drama than a drama with some boxing in it, "The Fighter" turns Bale loose in a supporting role that dominates director David O. Russell's film, much as Heath Ledger's Joker took over "The Dark Knight" from its hero, Bale's Batman.

Not that Wahlberg comes up short in any way as real-life boxer Micky Ward, who rose from his blue-collar roots and overcame ugly squabbling with his relations to earn a title shot in 2000, when he was in his mid-30s.

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Also a producer on the film who trained for years to play Ward, Wahlberg is excellent. It's just that Bale is truly extraordinary as Ward's older half-brother, Dicky Eklund, a flamboyant but self-destructive former boxer who trains his sibling to climb to heights he never reached himself as his life unraveled amid crack addiction.

Gaunt, wiry, always moving, always talking, Bale casts aside the stoicism of so many of his roles and becomes a lovable wreck. We've always known Bale can play menacing and mean, and those qualities in Dicky are always apparent. But Bale's Dicky also is a joyous figure, hilarious, outrageous, bigheaded yet big-hearted, a self-centered man so sure of his own worth that he's capable of surprising generosity toward others.

As with Ledger's Joker, it's the stuff that Academy Awards wins are made of.

Written by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson, the film itself is a strange stew, a raw, genuine portrait of working-class stiffs one moment, a shrill-bordering-on-caricatured comedy of family discord and vulgar people the next.

Video: 'The Fighter': Dec. 10 (on this page)

Melissa Leo as Micky and Dicky's bleach-blond, boozy, lovingly domineering mother, Alice Ward, and Amy Adams as Micky's steely girlfriend, Charlene, are terrific. But the filmmakers continually hurl Micky and Dicky's half-dozen sisters and half-sisters into the fray like a pack of harpies.

They can be hysterically funny, fighting verbally and even physically with Charlene, the interloper threatening to yank Micky out of the matriarchy of their family circle. Yet their tabloid-TV behavior is so obnoxiously at odds with the drama surrounding the main characters that the female siblings at times seem to be there more for cheap comic effect than anything else.

Russell is skilled at mixing intense drama and humor, as he did on "Three Kings," which also co-starred Wahlberg. He seems to revel too much in the absurdities of Micky and Dicky's family here, though, and it leaves "The Fighter" a little wobbly on its dramatic legs.

The boxing matches are fierce but mostly brief, Russell compacting long fights into a few choice skirmishes. The director presents a bruising, unsentimental closeup of ringside action, without the artistic flourishes of many boxing flicks.

The film is at its best focusing on Micky, Dicky and Alice, the mom who managed both their careers and is flabbergasted when Micky strikes out on his own, declaring that his family has not only held him back, but also led him into danger in the ring.

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The split between half-brothers provides fine drama, but the soul of "The Fighter" comes from the fierce affection and devotion these two wildly different men hold for each other even when estranged.

Wahlberg's Micky is a quiet, disciplined, workmanlike boxer who keeps slogging on even as it seems his life and his chances are slipping away (and Wahlberg, with a physique simply ripped from his years of training, looks as though he belongs in the ring).

Dicky is a tragic figure, a guy who had his shot, against Sugar Ray Leonard in the late 1970s, and can't stop reminding people of it. His downward spiral includes a prison term for a spate of crimes, and Bale wrings a remarkable range of emotion from the man — hurt, resentment, shame, guilt — even when Dicky is at his most blustering.

Along with Leonard, who appears briefly as himself, Lowell, Mass., police officer Mickey O'Keefe, who helped train Ward, also plays himself, doing as well as any Hollywood character actor might while adding a nice touch of authenticity.

Like Bale, Wahlberg, Adams and particularly Leo have strong Oscar prospects. Leo, a best-actress nominee for 2008's "Frozen River," could easily walk off with the supporting-actress prize, her Alice a wonderful gust of grasping, strangling maternalism.

Bale has talked about envying Ledger a bit on the set of "The Dark Knight," watching his co-star cut loose as the Joker while he had to remain rigid as the tightly wound Batman. Two years after Ledger's posthumous supporting-actor win at the Oscars, Bale might take home the same honor, for inhabiting a role with a different but equally ferocious sort of abandon.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: 'The Fighter': Dec. 10

Explainer: 5 most powerful boxing films

  • Boxing movies always have plenty of champions: They inspire us to fight harder ourselves, overcome obstacles in our own lives, acquire killer biceps and abs.

    Mark Wahlberg has always been known for those parts of his body, and they're on full display in "The Fighter," a movie he's been training for and fighting to get made for four years. He stars as Micky Ward, a real-life boxer who was one of Wahlberg's favorites growing up in Massachusetts.

    Story: Co-star Bale rules in Wahlberg's 'Fighter'

    With "The Fighter" opening this weekend, here are five more boxing movies that pack an emotional punch:

  • 'Raging Bull' (1980)

    Image: Robert DeNiro

    Well, of course we have to start here. Greatest boxing movie ever? That's not too much of a stretch. What more can we say that hasn't already been said? It's all so obvious.

    Robert De Niro famously transformed himself inside and out, packing on the muscle to play the volatile former middleweight champion Jake La Motta. In gorgeous, intimate black-and-white with its haunting title sequence, this may just go down as Martin Scorsese's brutal masterpiece. It earned Academy Awards for De Niro (best actor) and for Thelma Schoonmaker's editing, but was criminally robbed of the best-picture prize, which went to "Ordinary People."

  • 'Rocky' (1976)

    Image: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire

    Again, from the what-more-can-we-say? department. We went with the first "Rocky" here, tempting as it was to dredge up later installments featuring Mr. T and Dolph Lundgren, because it set the precedent for the franchise.

    It was the little movie that could, the one that came out of nowhere with no budget and shocked the world by winning the best-picture Oscar over bigger and more traditional contenders: "Network," "All the President's Men," "Bound for Glory" and "Taxi Driver." Sylvester Stallone wrote the script and starred as the Italian Stallion, Rocky Balboa, a small-time boxer who would go on to win the heavyweight championship. As full of cheesy uplift as the ending is, it still sends chills.

  • 'Million Dollar Baby' (2004)

    Image: Million Dollar Baby
    Warner Bros. via Reuters

    Director and co-star Clint Eastwood has said this appealed to him because it was about a search for family, and indeed, the scenes he shares with Hilary Swank, who functions as a daughter figure in his life, provide the film's heart.

    But as Maggie Fitzgerald, a young woman who comes from nothing, trains hard and turns herself into an unlikely champion, Swank also inspires all on her own. And the ending is just devastating, even if you know it's coming. The film earned Academy Awards for best picture, director, actress and supporting actor: Morgan Freeman as Eastwood's longtime friend and verbal sparring partner outside the ring.

  • 'The Champ' (1979)

    Image: "The Champ"

    I dare you to try even thinking about this movie without getting choked up — that's how powerful its conclusion is. Yes, it's a remake and yes, it's shamelessly tear-jerky, but man, is it effective.

    Jon Voight stars as an ex-boxer now working as a horse trainer while raising his worshipful young son (the artist formerly known as Ricky Schroder). He decides to try in earnest for a comeback (don't they all?) when his socialite ex-wife (Faye Dunaway) shows up and threatens to tear father and son apart. Schroder displayed depth and instincts beyond his years at the film's wrenching climax.

  • 'Girlfight' (2000)

    Image: "Girlfight"
    Screen Gems

    Before Swank in "Million Dollar Baby," Michelle Rodriguez blazed a trail here as a determined teen from the Brooklyn projects who rebels against her father and insists she should train to be a boxer.

    A then-unknown Rodriguez burst onto the scene with her film debut, showing the sultry strength and intensity that would become her trademarks, and this tough little indie shared top honors that year at the Sundance Film Festival. Director Karyn Kusama went on to make some lousy movies after this — "Aeon Flux," "Jennifer's Body" — but her first one was a knockout.

Discuss: Will you see 'The Fighter'?

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