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The Fighter may be the first boxing movie in which the women look as if they could out-punch the men. The true-life story of welterweight Micky Ward introduces us to two of the year’s toughest big-screen women, Ward’s mom (a brilliant Melissa Leo) and his girlfriend (an unexpectedly gritty Amy Adams).

As directed by David O. Russell (I Heart Huckabees and Three Kings), the setting of The Fighter — Lowell, Mass. — proves as important as the movie’s characters. A breeding ground for toughness, blue-collar Lowell comes off as the sort of place where the weak easily can be eaten alive and the streets are a place to strut.

Bale goes in every direction at once
Bale goes in every direction at once

Mark Wahlberg, who also served as one of the movie’s producers, plays Micky, an aspiring welterweight who’s managed by his mom and trained by his brother Dicky (Christian Bale). In the movie’s least showy performance (OK, it’s a little dull), Wahlberg makes Micky a bit of a cipher, a guy on whom others easily can project their hopes and ambitions.

Bale’s Dicky Edlund (he’s a half brother to Micky) is among those invested in Micky’s career. Dicky, who has fallen into reprobate territory by the time the movie opens, was a talented young boxer whose claim to flame centered on the fact that he once knocked Sugar Ray Leonard on his butt. Dicky went on to lose the fight, but he had his moment of glory.

Formerly known as “The Pride of Lowell,” Dicky’s now a nerve-jangled crack addict with rotting teeth, a thick accent, a backward baseball cap and a body that seems to be on a collision course with itself. Bale somehow masters the art of moving in several different directions simultaneously. Dicky tends to speak with his body before any words come out. Speech almost seems an afterthought.

Early on, we learn that HBO is making a documentary about Dicky. Poor deluded Dicky thinks the movie will focus on a potential comeback: HBO has a different idea; i.e., a documentary about crack addiction.

In outline, The Fighter tells a classic story about an unlikely kid who fights his way toward a championship bout. But the real pleasures of the movie lie outside the ring as Micky’s family — which includes chorus of seven vocal sisters — horns in on the action, sometimes in ways that threaten to put Micky in a stranglehold.

When Micky hooks up with Charlene (Adams), he finds a new kind of support, someone who’s interested only in him and not the welfare of his family. Charlene gives Micky the courage to strike out on his own, shedding his mom as a manager and finding someone other than his brother to train him. After retreating to a construction job, Micky decides to give boxing one more try.

Micky’s bid for independence puts Charlene into direct conflict with Leo’s mother, a woman with the kind of blonde hair that looks as if it’s been sculpted rather than combed. Leo’s Alice is a belligerent old bird who’s not afraid to throw her weight around. She indulges Dicky in the way parents sometimes treat a lovable but troubled kid. Micky, who never causes problems, tends to get short shrift.

Russell handles the fight scenes in ways that highlight Micky’s approach, which involves a style that’s stronger on guts than skill. Micky tends to take brutal beatings while waiting for the other guy to punch himself out. He then moves in for the kill. Micky’s punching mantra: “Head, body. Head, body.”

The best boxing movies have the kind of social and thematic reach that eludes The Fighter, which is content to slug it out on a fairly realistic plane. If I had a complaint about the movie it involves the way Russell treats Micky and his family as a source of sustained low-life comedy, sharply drawn caricatures that inhabit a shot-with-a-beer-back world where boxing is pronounced “bawx-ing.”

But the performances — Adams, Leo and Bale all probably will earn Oscar nominations — are too lively to be pinned to the wall of stereotype, and the movie has a spit-in-your-eye spirit that I liked.

The Fighter is less about one man’s redemption (either in or out of the ring) than about the hardscrabble attitudes that are necessary for survival in a scrappy, disorganized family.

In a limo on the way back from a losing fight, Micky’s mother asks him a pointed question, “What are you gonna do without your family?”

For Micky, it’s the question of a lifetime. To the movie’s and to Micky’s credit, he works hard trying to answer it.