Christian Bale is probably going to win an Oscar for his role here. In looking at the trailer, I was surprised to see that while co-stars Mark Wahlberg, Amy Adams, and Melissa Leo are all past nominees, Bale has never been recognized. That's right: Marky Mark was nominated for an Oscar while the latest and greatest Batman (as well as Patrick Bateman!) has never gotten recognized. Well, The Fighter is going to fix that oversight right up.
The titular fighter is actually Wahlberg's Mickey Ward, a journeyman slugger from Lowell, MA whose older brother Dicky (Bale) was a boxer whose claim to fame was knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard in a bout, but then went on to being a crack addict. Represented by his mother (Leo), Mikey is set up with lousy matches that have sapped his will to go on. Then he meets a brassy barmaid (Adams) who inspires him to try and move beyond his co-dependent family, a development they resent even though it works best for Mickey's interests.
Director David O'Russell has gone 11 years since his last good movie (Three Kings) with only 2004's unbelievably craptastic I Heart Huckabee's in between. Fortunately, he's back on his game here with a film that makes a good back half for a double-feature with Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler. (Fun Irony: Aronofsky is an executive producer here.) What is really commendable is that he manages to now succumb to the typical Hollywood temptation to overtly sneer at the lower-class blue-collar people of the town. Coastal elites hate the poor, but O'Russell manages to capture the local color without coloring them as white trash caricatures.
Bale lost over 60 pounds to play the hollowed-out (physically and spiritually) Dicky and while has the splashier role, it never devolves into ticks and nonsense. He's a screwup and eventually realizes it, but we see the charm that many addicts have that sustains their existences. Wahlberg underplays his part again and frankly I'm really bored with his schtick. When he first started in bigger movies like The Big Hit and Boogie Nights, the sight of him not being Marky Mark was enough to impress, but after over a decade of this act, it's no longer an interesting trick. Oh, he's fine in the performance and provides a quiet contrast to Bale's bigness; it's just we've seen it over and over before.
Adams is also a revelation as she kicks her sweet princess acting past to the curb as the tramp-stamped sorta floozy who tossed her athletic past away, but won't let Mickey give up. The scene where she tussles with Mickey's sisters delivers the one punch that made us go, "Ohhhh!" Leo is also fine. I've seen some criticism for the boxing scenes being lackluster, but I think it doesn't matter because O'Russell wisely doesn't attempt to ape the operatic style of Raging Bull or the visceral popcorn thrills of the Rocky flicks.
Score: 9/10. Catch a matinee.