David O. Russell loves a good melee. Whether in the mode of road-trip farce (Flirting With Disaster), Gulf War satire (Three Kings), or a difficult-to-classify new genre that might, at a stretch, be called existential romantic comedy (I Heart Huckabees), Russell makes movies that mix it up. He favors large casts, multiple story lines, dialogue that flies loose and fast, and broad sight gags that suddenly give way to philosophical exchanges of almost comical bleakness. His films unfold in an atmosphere of barely controlled chaos. What's more, the director himself is a notoriously volatile presence: Witness the much-circulated clip of him in a screaming match with Lily Tomlin on the I Heart Huckabees set. Russell's decision to make a boxing biopic—based on the true story of the underdog welterweight champion Micky Ward—seemed at first like a waste of his offbeat talent. But as it turns out, The Fighter (Paramount Pictures) is a perfect fit for Russell's style. Really, it's less a sports movie than a family drama, and the family in question—the Ward/Eklund clan of Lowell, Mass., a working-class suburb of Boston—is unhinged enough to do way more than just flirt with disaster.
From the start, The Fighter exudes a vibe that's decidedly un-Rocky. Two half-brothers, Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Dickie Eklund (Christian Bale) walk down the streets of Lowell, Micky contained and shy, Dickie loose-limbed and wildly expressive, greeting everyone in sight, clearly the de facto mayor of the town. As the camera pulls back, we see that the brothers aren't simply strolling but performing. An HBO crew is following them through town, making a movie. Dickie, a former boxing champ whose claim to fame is that he once went the distance against Sugar Ray Leonard, * brags that it's a documentary about his imminent comeback, but it soon becomes clear that HBO is more interested in Dickie's current life situation: He's a crack addict who periodically disappears for days at a time.
Meanwhile, younger brother Micky pursues his own, less illustrious boxing career. He's being trained by Dickie, whose work ethic is seriously compromised by his drug addiction, and managed by their mother, the beehive-sporting, chain-smoking Alice (Melissa Leo.) Though she's fiercely devoted to both of her sons and all seven (!) of her grown daughters, Alice has some conflicts of interest as a manager: The family is so badly in need of money that she pushes Micky into fights he's not ready for or for which he's dramatically outmatched. When he's badly injured in one such fight, Micky's new girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) encourages him to seek new management. This doesn't go a long way toward endearing Charlene to Alice and her seven scowling daughters. *
This movie's title, presumably, describes Micky Ward, but actually it applies to all of the characters. These people are fighters—not just in the sense that they're unshakably dedicated to a cause, but in the sense that they're always ready to tear one another's heads off. Micky and Dickie exchange blows both inside and outside the ring. Alice wings crockery—including iron pots that could do some real damage—at her husband, the preternaturally patient George Ward (Jack McGee). And in one memorable scene, Charlene leaps into the fray with all seven sisters when they come to her front porch to bawl her out. This gang gives the Whites of West Virginia a run for their money.
The boxing scenes are filmed as they would have appeared on pay-per-view in the early '90s—grainy video, vintage logos and all. With the exception of the last big fight, these scenes are relatively short and not hyper-violent, which will come as a relief to viewers still rattled (30 * years later) by the close-up, slo-mo shots of head trauma in Raging Bull. The real violence happens not in the ring but in the domestic arena. This family unit isn't cutely "dysfunctional" in the sitcom style; it's genuinely disturbed—yet genuinely loving at the same time. When Micky nervously stands up to his domineering, thin-skinned mother, you root for him to cut the apron strings, but you also understand Alice's sense of betrayal.
Russell has always excelled at finding new ways to use familiar actors, and every performance in The Fighter is noteworthy if not outstanding. We've gotten so used to watching Christian Bale glower stoically behind a bat-mask, we forget how good he is when he's deranged, glassy-eyed, and bouncing off walls—like a less malign version of American Psycho's Patrick Bateman. And this is Melissa Leo as you've never seen her before; usually cast as a wise earth mother, she's a sight to behold stomping around in heels and leopard-print pantsuits. As the lovers eager to escape this toxic matriarch, Mark Wahlberg and Amy Adams have less attention-getting parts, but they're both superb: Wahlberg in a role that's more tender and more diffident than the ones he usually plays, Adams in one that's uncharacteristically vulgar and street-smart.
If you're still not convinced that you should see yet another uplifting sports film, let me try one more angle: The Fighter is worth seeing less for its well-told inspirational story than for what you might call its emotional texture. It's a rough-edged and proudly unpolished movie with a wealth of odd, funny details. One example: When a weeping Alice comes to fetch Dickie at the seedy crack house he frequents, he suddenly begins to serenade his mother with an a cappella version of the Bee Gees' "I Started a Joke." The song goes on for a few beats longer than it would in most mainstream movies (not that a normal movie would ever try to orchestrate a tender moment with such a bizarre song). We never learn just what this song means to the two of them, why he chooses to sing it at that moment, or why she eventually stops crying to sing along. But we don't need to understand the moment fully in order to revel in it: It's unforeseeable, unexplainable, and marvelous, like Micky's boxing comeback, like life.
Correction, Dec. 9, 2010: This article originally stated that Eklund defeated Sugar Ray Leonard. In fact, though he lasted the entire fight without getting knocked out, he ultimately lost. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Correction, Dec. 10, 2010: This article originally spelled "Dickie" as "Dicky" throughout—the publicity materials for the film had "Dicky," but the real Eklund went by "Dickie." Finally, the film Raging Bull came out 30 years ago, not 20 years ago. (Return to the corrected sentence.)