Wildly uneven and about as entertaining, "The Fighter" is committed to the rambunctious masculine energy of the boxing ring. Sustained by a triple threat of performances by Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale and Amy Adams, David O. Russell's dramatization of star boxing brothers "Irish" Mickey Ward (Wahlberg) and half-brother Dicky Eklund (Bale) sticks to the old-fashioned trajectory of the sports movie mold. Russell navigates the usual hoops with more efficiency than the market standard, relying on naturalistic performances and speedy momentum to keep viewers hooked, but never reaches the uniquely sardonic tone present in the rest of his work ("I Heart Huckabees," "Three Kings"). Eccentricity takes a backseat to the familiar.
Set outside Boston in Lowell, Massachusetts during the early 1990's, "The Fighter" transpires in a stylized world of the thick-accented, hot-blooded Irish American middle class, where people glare at each other more often than they smile. As the story begins, Dicky poses for HBO cameras ostensibly filming his comeback, while suffering behind closed doors from a crack addiction that the rest of his family actively ignores. Meanwhile, Mickey absorbs his brother's lost ambition, ceaselessly training for a shot at the championship. Their mother (Melissa Leo), does double-duty as their manager, watching over her children's respective ambitions (and doting over seven daughters) with an aggressive matriarchal gaze. Beyond Dicky's literal addiction, the family seems hooked on its own crumbling legacy, a destructive cycle marked by the constant desire to track down the next big opportunity. Mickey only manages to break way with the help of his new flame Charlene (Amy Adams), a foul-mouthed bartender willing to speak out against the family's iron grip on Mickey's life.
The cast relishes each opportunity for intensity. Wahlberg portrays an understated innocent pitted against Bale's wild-eyed time bomb of a performance, which generates an amusing thrill factor whenever it avoids veering into camp. Adams finally discovers a role where she doesn't have to get dolled up for the camera, and the ferocity suits her. Leo presents the freakiest embodiment of parental control since Jacki Weaver's gangster-mom in "Animal Kingdom." The two women's characters view each other as threats, hurling insults like bricks, their eyes bulging with demonic rage as they squabble over the chaotic entanglement of their private and professional lives.
Needless to say, they're more fun to watch than the boxing itself, which turns into something of a problem. Whenever Mickey heads into the ring, "The Fighter" loses much of its appeal and simply turns into a record of the sport in close-up. The technical aspects of the fights hold plenty of appeal, recalling Frederick Wiseman's recent documentary "Boxing Gym," which boiled the sport down to an unending avalanche of sweat and grunts. That texture opens up plenty of cinematic possibilities, which Russell exploits through overlapping dialogue and the fierce thuds of punches colliding with flesh, making this awards season movie stand out as a contender for best sound design more than anything else. But those same moments are devoid of any lasting substance. The stakes never build and the finale feels like an afterthought.
Outside of the ring, "The Fighter" hums along with a series of melodramatic twists, especially once Dicky's sudden incarceration throws the family dynamic into jeopardy. Yet even as individual scenes hum along, the movie has an erratic progression, as if Russell and screenwriters Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson couldn't decide if they wanted to go the "Rocky" route and emphasize the sport's brutal nature or play up the family's larger relationship issues. The result is a rickety hodgepodge of both options.
Bookended with "fake" interviews featuring Bale and Wahlberg speaking to the camera in character, the movie reveals the inspiration for the roles by showing authentic interviews with the real Mickey and Dicky alongside the credits. It's a wise choice that allows us to see the accuracy of the two lead performances, particularly the neat chemistry between the brothers that makes them ready-made for big screen drama. "The Fighter" adheres to a formula, but then so do the competitors.
criticWIRE grade: B