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Christian Bale scores another knockout in this middleweight boxing drama based on a true story.

Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter
Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter

The Pride of Lowell

As the end credits start to roll, the real life Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund, maternal brothers, are shown in a short interview clip. Brief as it is, it’s enough to make it clear their cinematic counterparts, Mark Wahlberg (The Other Guys) and Christian Bale (The Dark Knight), studied their mannerisms closely.

Both brothers, the only two males in a brood of nine, are boxers with dreams of a championship. Dicky, the older brother, had his chance back in 1978, when he fought Sugar Ray Leonard. But he threw away his chance at boxing history in favor of a drug-addled life. Combine the drugs with boxing’s inevitable blows to the head and the guy is loaded up with all sorts of quirks and tics.

As the movie begins, Dicky’s nothing more than a crack addict who thinks the documentary crew following him around is making a movie about his big comeback at the age of 40. They’re really documenting the former Pride of Lowell’s addiction and its destructive influence.

On the other hand, Micky is the shy type who simply wants a good, honest life. Unfortunately, his mom (Melissa Leo, Conviction) and his trainer brother keep engaging him with mismatched opponents, the type who use Micky as a stepping stone, an easy victory on the road to bigger and better.

Belle Epoque

Christian Bale’s performance as Dicky is jaw dropping. Much like his work in The Machinist, Bale has once again physically transformed himself. He’s lanky, but he still carries some of the muscle of a former boxer. More importantly, though, his wide-eyed face has the gaunt look of a crack addict.

Seeing yet another body-altered performance from Bale brings into question the physical toll such transformations must have on Bale’s body, and that’s in addition to the mental strain of getting so deeply embedded in his characters. The movies most certainly benefit from Bale’s all-in approach, but the health aspects boggle the mind. And now Bale will be bulking up once again for the next Batman installment, The Dark Knight Rises.

But Bale isn’t the only performer bringing his “A” game. Amy Adams (Enchanted) steps in as Charlene, a sharp, tough-talking bartender chick who catches Micky’s eye and heart. She stands toe-to-toe with Micky’s seven sisters – and mom – in her personal mission to see Micky fulfill his dreams.

And then there’s Mickey O’Keefe. He plays a prominent role as a police officer who usurps Dicky’s role as trainer when Micky finally decides his brother’s self-destructive ways were going to undermine any chance of success he might have. This is Mickey’s first role and it’s a choice one: he gets to play himself.

Gonna Fly Now

In 2006, when Sylvester Stallone brought Rocky Balboa back into the ring, he went with high-def cameras to record the final fight and effectively captured the look and feel of a modern-day boxing match presented on cable.

The Fighter takes a similar logic with its fight scenes, but in the time context of the 1990s, when standard-def was still the norm. The main narrative is shot as would be expected for a modern film drama, but the fight scenes go low-res, with the gritty, noisy look of an old-fangled analog TV broadcast. It’s a neat little effect that works quite well.

In a movie with boxing as the focus, at least a few of the familiar Rocky riffs are inevitable, like the final pre-title match work out and the confrontational press conference. But in The Fighter, director David O. Russell (Three Kings) plays down those aspects in favor of a substantial amount of humor driven by the craziness of the Ward/Eklund clan and their even more crazy dedication to each other.

Mom is blinded to Dicky’s self-destruction, to the point where she’s more critical of Micky’s honest pursuit of success, even if it means ditching his brother’s spotty training and her sketchy scheduling. For their part, the seven sisters, all sporting big hair, attitude, and strong vocal chords, are so much white trash even this two hour movie is too much time to spend with them.

But, bless him, Micky loves his family and he’s willing to fight for them, literally and figuratively.