The Fighter: Wahlberg, Bale Punch Above Their Weight

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Jojo Whilden / Paramount Pictures / AP

Christian Bale, left, and Mark Wahlberg in a scene from The Fighter

Christian Bale gives a monumentally showy performance in The Fighter as Dicky Eklund, a real-life welterweight boxer whose promising career in the late 1970s earned him the title "the Pride of Lowell" in his faded industrial Massachusetts hometown. But by the mid-'80s, he had become a crack addict and a local nuisance. In The Fighter, directed by David O. Russell, Dicky has a habit of leaping out of second-story windows and into a dumpster whenever anyone knocks on the door of the crack house he frequents. Looking at Bale rolling about in the bursting bags of garbage — barely recognizable with a mouthful of bad teeth, crazy eyes and an addict's bone-thin frame — the less charitable moviegoer may think this is Dicky's natural habitat.

The role is pure Oscar bait, but as convincingly wretched as he is, Bale is ultimately less riveting than Mark Wahlberg, who plays Micky Ward, Eklund's younger half brother — a welterweight boxer who became a champion both because of and despite his charismatic sibling, who served as his trainer for most of his career. The Fighter is about boxing, but it's mostly a portrait of people trapped in the confusing cycle of co-dependency.

Wahlberg has the requisite tough physicality, but his emotional take on Micky is pleasingly delicate. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema shoots him in a constant state of isolation and worry, harkening back to the way he photographed the young protagonist of the 2008 Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In. Stylistically it works, because while Micky is no wimp, he's emotionally vulnerable and bullied by his own family. He's wary but not jaded, simple but not stupid. You get the sense he would skip the fights altogether if Dicky were still in the game. Wahlberg's gentle warmth is a welcome contrast to Bale's studied, meticulous performance.

Impressive chameleon Melissa Leo (Frozen River, Homicide) plays Dicky and Micky's hard-as-nails, almost criminally delusional mother Alice. Leo is 50, Wahlberg is 39 and Bale 36; out of all of them, she's the best at acting her screen age. Alice is a classic type: stretch pants, a pack of cigarettes glued to her palm, wings of bleached blonde hair standing at stiff attention atop her head. Although she's mother to nine children by two fathers — an enormous pack of shrewish daughters follow her around like a litter of pit bulls — Alice is forever focused on her pride and joy, Dicky. She refuses to acknowledge his drug problem, and lives in anticipation of his comeback. In the meantime, she serves as Micky's manager, with the primary goal of having him make Dicky look good. After Micky is brutalized by a heavier, tougher opponent, Alice just wants him to slap on a Band-Aid and thank his half brother for the opportunity.

This crew would all wallow in each other if it weren't for the catalyst of Charlene (Amy Adams), Micky's new bartender girlfriend, who pushes him to stand up to his family. The sister harpies take an instant dislike to Charlene, accusing her of putting on airs (she went to college, briefly). The scene in which Micky takes her home to the snake pit is missing only Kristen Wiig to be a Saturday Night Live skit called "The House of Skanks," but Charlene — and Adams — holds her own. The Enchanted star tends to play innocents, but she's convincingly tough here, and she and Wahlberg have heady, earthy chemistry. When Dicky goes off to prison, it is Charlene who helps Micky get back in the ring without him. (In a neat little twist, Mickey O'Keefe, the Lowell cop who took over the real Micky Ward's training, plays himself in his acting debut.)

Wahlberg establishes the kind of goodwill that keeps us engaged by Micky's shot at the title, even though it would have been enough to make this a story of his empowerment and budding independence from his family. But the screenplay, credited to three writers, has that overdoctored feeling to it, and we're asked to take on a larger redemption tale that undermines the truth of Bale's wholly unsympathetic portrayal of a drug addict and a narcissist. The Fighter's desire to show us what that awful combination looks like is overwhelmed by its urge to show us a Hollywood-style triumph. In the movie's coda, the real Micky and Dicky, filmed hanging out in Lowell, talk about how great the whole filmmaking experience was. Dicky, whose speech and movements Bale captured uncannily, does most of the talking. There's no mention of his more recent arrests, including one involving crack possession after the events of the movie took place. Presumably, that would have interfered with the happy ending.