[Screen It]

(2010) (Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale) (R)

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Drama: A boxer, who's grown up in the shadow of his older brother who was once a contender but is now a crack addict, must decide whether to hang up his gloves or keep fighting, all while having to contend with his loyal but overbearing family that's completely involved in his personal and professional life.
In the city of Lowell, Massachusetts, Dicky Eklund (CHRISTIAN BALE) is a boxing legend, having gone the distance long ago with none other than Sugar Ray Leonard. Now, his younger half-brother, Micky Ward (MARK WAHLBERG), is trying to follow in his prize fighter footsteps. The only problem is that those in his corner, despite their best intentions, aren't good for his career.

While Micky's dad, George (JACK McGEE) is supportive, he must take a back seat to the brothers' mom, Alice (MELISSA LEO), a strong-willed woman who serves as her son's manager but doesn't always book him against the best opponents, either for his career or health. And although local cop Sgt. Mickey O'Keefe (MICKEY O'KEEFE) helps as Micky's trainer, the boxer relies on his older brother for all of his physical training, tactics, advice and more.

The big problem, however, is that Dicky has quite a record with the local police and is now a crack addict, meaning he's always late, if he even shows up at all, for his brother's training. With a series of recent losses, Micky is ready to throw in the towel, but his new girlfriend, local bartender Charlene Fleming (AMY ADAMS), tells him he needs to get away from his family in order to succeed, putting her at odds with Dicky, Alice and her many adult daughters. With his career suddenly on an upswing, Micky must decide who he wants in his corner.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
Despite loving to watch ice skating, gymnastics and such, my wife doesn't understand the attraction of watching basketball, football or, least of all, boxing. Granted, her choices are about grace, style and solo performances, while that's rarely said about the more "manly" sports where bashing, pummeling and otherwise defeating the opponent is the name of the game.

While I can easily say the same about her favorites, her main argument is that every play or contact all looks the same time in and time out (in what she calls gladiator sports.). Of course, the sports are about more than just contact, with strategy, psychological tactics and more taking place, meaning there are nearly limitless possibilities and outcomes regarding how any game or match might play out. All of which leads to the old football saying, "On any given Sunday" (any team can beat another).

Sadly, that's not usually the case when it comes to movies about sports. And that's not only because just about every sport known to mankind has been put on film (and usually numerous times), but also due to the fact that many filmmakers seem obliged to follow the sports drama playbook to a T. All of which results in a "been there, seen that before" response to pretty much any such flick that comes our way.

That's especially true for boxing movies since there are only so many variations of how to tell such a tale, especially when the footage moves inside the square ring with just the two opponents going toe to toe and glove to glove. Some manage to be great ("Rocky," "Raging Bull") and others fairly good ("The Boxer," "Rocky Balboa"), but most range from mediocre to awful or, maybe worse yet, instantly forgettable.

Thankfully, the latter clearly doesn't apply to "The Fighter," and while it might not rank among the very best boxing flicks, it's quite good. It certainly doesn't hurt that it's based on the true story of boxing brothers Micky Ward and Dickie Eklund, half-siblings who fought years apart but made quite a name for themselves in the sport and especially their hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts.

Like any boxing film (or that of any other sport for that matter), the in-the-ring recreation has to be believable, exciting and filled with uncertainty. Yet, any good filmmaker knows that alone can't carry the pic, and that as much and usually more attention needs to be paid to the out of the ring or off the field/court drama. After all, the actual sporting event might momentarily enthuse the viewer, but it's the drama that engages the audience by making them feel for the participants.

In that regard, director David O. Russell -- who works from an original screenplay by Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson -- lands all of the necessary jabs to make this pic an above average entry in the genre. Granted, it doesn't hurt that he's gotten some stellar performances from his cast. Mark Wahlberg is solid as the younger boxer who's conflicted between staying loyal to his close-knit family and moving on from them in order to grow, and the film proves as many have before it that the former "funky bunch" lead's performance is completely dependent on the director with whom he works. Given a bad one or the wrong match and the performance suffers, but a good director can always bring out the best in the actor, and that's certainly the case here.

That said, though, it's the supporting performances that deliver the strongest punches and occasional knock-out blows. Both Melissa Leo (as the half-brothers' controlling boxing-promoter mom) and Amy Adams (as the younger boxer's new girlfriend who wants to get him out from under his family's limiting ways) deliver award nomination worthy performances.

It's Christian Bale, however, who ends up as the film's heavyweight champ. Some may argue that playing a former boxer turned crack addict, inmate and lead weight around the protagonist's ankles is akin to Oscar bait. To a degree that's an accurate assessment. However, it is based on the life of the real man (who wanted the spelling of his character's name in the film changed to Dicky to match his half-brother).

Bale so completely disappears into the role and creates such an unforgettable character that you completely forget this is the guy who also played Batman (or was the kid in Spielberg's highly underrated "Empire of the Sun"). You'll also likely agree he's the odds on favorite to win the supporting actor category in every award that will be handed out this season. It's a stellar performance from an actor who's long due an Oscar.

Like most any previous boxing movie or real life story of a fighter, there's nothing really new here, and you can pretty much figure out how things are ultimately going to play out. Yet, Russell and company manage to keep it feeling fresh enough that boredom never sets in. And the performances and script are solid to excellent enough that by the time the final big fight makes its way into the ring, you'll truly care about and root for the main character to win, both for him and those in his circle.

The fact that I found myself with sweaty palms while watching the finale (despite having seen too many boxing movies to count) is a testament to the work of those in front of and behind the camera. On the surface, it might just seem like any other boxing flick (or "gladiator" movie), but once the layers are revealed, it turns into something more. Proving that "on any given Friday" you might be caught off guard by a film that defies expectations, "The Fighter" is in my top 10 list for 2010 and rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed December 2, 2010 / Posted December 17, 2010

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