For a split second during one of The Fighter's meticulously staged boxing sequences, Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) does something which would be, for any pugilist, rather imprudent: he drops his hands and shoots his opponent a dirty look before returning to the attack. Of course, that a fighter should never volitionally put his hands down is far from the first lesson any up-and-comer would be taught: he or she would never need to be told this, it would be fairly obvious. However, since IMDB describes The Fighter as "a look at the early years of boxer 'Irish' Micky Ward and his brother who helped train him before going pro in the mid '80s," despite the fact that this is quite obviously a film about Micky Ward's later years and is set in the late '90s–the aforementioned match taking place in 2000 when Ward was 35–such technical fluffs may be forgivable, nay, not worth considering in any way, shape or form. In fact, since The Fighter's boxing sequences only use up a minuscule percentage of the film's running time, the film may not even count as a sports drama, and it would be unfair to judge it as such. If anything, it's a family drama in which boxing plays a fairly small role: less the story of a great athlete and his valiant struggles in the ring–he is depicted in the film as something of a dirty fighter–than of the desperate scrambling on the part of his family, his girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) and any number of slippery managers and handlers to allow that noble illusion to flourish–either for selfish personal gain or out of undiagnosed existential angst. As a testament to the film's filial preoccupations, its makers utilize a unique chaptering device: the superimposition of title cards announcing Ward's upcoming matches over scenes of domestic strife, turning the drama played out on the screen, the hopes, anxieties and unfulfilled dreams riding upon Ward's success in the ring, into the true "main event."

Those fans of the sports genre longing for the stylized in-the-ring histrionics of a Rocky film or the ultra-gory near-caricatures of the sport of Raging Bull will not be disappointed with the sparsity of boxing sequences as it is a merciful one: those on display are about as harrowing and disturbing as any committed to film and are exceedingly difficult to watch. Not unlike those featured in Jim Sheridan's The Boxer, they accentuate the inherent cruelty and barbarism of the sport more than its glory or athleticism. Typical to a family drama in which the ring plays only a minor role, most of the action takes place in in Ward's family home in Lowell, Mass. and around a dusty local gym. Falling as it does in a long string of recent films set in and around the Boston area, virtually all of which feature dozens of actors, each doing scores of confused accents from distant regions–the dialectal nightmares that were The Departed and Mystic River spring to mind–The Fighter may be the first to feature at least a vast majority of lead actors speaking in the same accent! The film is also brilliantly cast, so that virtually every face feels authentic–even every hand gesture: Micky's sisters' distinctively northeastern pointing for no reason with the palm turned down–not out–is a very nice touch. The filmmakers' attention to detail is further exemplified in its set design: something as subtle as the long, taut coiled cord of Micky's mother Alice (Melissa Leo)'s phone stretching from room to room accentuates the film's homey charm and indelibly captures an authentically hemmed-in working class intimacy.

At the risk of sounding rude, Christian Bale's performance in this film is surprisingly, as well as astonishingly, good: it is perhaps the definitive portrayal of a "junkie," but that may be an understatement given the proud, rich tradition of lame, stock-character acting associated with similar roles. Not only is it the best thing he's ever done but, on the strength of this performance alone, he's proven himself to be one of the finest actors of his generation. Bale's loveable loser, Dicky Eklund, Micky's washed up boxer-turned-trainer of an older brother, exudes warmth, charisma, humor and genuine pathos. Perhaps one of the more (bizarrely) touching scenes in the film occurs just after Alice drives out to a crack house in search of Dicky, only to witness him leaping out of a window and landing on a garbage heap in the hopes of eluding her. After he follows her back to her car, she appears to be on the verge of tears at the sight of what her child has become, but he comforts her by singing The Bee Gees' "I Started a Joke". Soon enough, she's forgiven him and joined in. The entire sequence would seem fairly preposterous were it not for the fact that Bale's near-conniving charm is so convincing, works as well on his heartbroken mother as it does on the audience. From the film's very outset, Bale is wholeheartedly possessed by the childlike whimsy of his vacant-eyed, hapless clown. It may be a further testament to the film's ingenious narrative construction that its most deeply flawed character is, in many ways, its most saintly: Dicky wants nothing more than to see his half-brother succeed, and will stop at nothing, even if that means prostituting his girlfriend, impersonating a police officer and fighting a bouncer and two cops.

Wahlberg has the physique and the accent down pat–though he was arguably born with these qualities–but he's almost a bit too sullen, ill-tempered and generally unhappy looking to make a believable "town hero with a heart of gold who wants nothing better than to be a good son and brother." Though Bale chews every scene to a pulp, the only other performer in the film who comes close to contending with him is Melissa Leo, who breathes vibrant life into what could have easily been a cardboard cutout: while her character is at times unreasonable, and at times it is apparent to the viewer that her eagerness to see Micky succeed is more an attempt to reconcile her perceived failure of Dicky than a genuine desire to see her younger son prosper, her flaws are those of a human and not a mere antagonist; even when she's pelting her husband with pots and pans does she remain painfully cute and lovable. On a similar note, the film's casual attitude towards mild domestic violence is perhaps one of its more unusual features; still, in keeping with the beyond-the-ring focus of the narrative, it is made very clear to the viewer that only this sort of environment could boxers the caliber of Dicky andMicky, boxers with no end of frustration and anxiety to channel into their performances in the ring.

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