Andy Bockelman: ‘The Fighter’ is a knockout sports drama |

Andy Bockelman: ‘The Fighter’ is a knockout sports drama

When a boxer steps into the ring, he expects to have a challenge in front of him. However, as the protagonist of "The Fighter" comes to find, sometimes it's among one's own family that you'll wind up on the ropes.

In 1978, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) could do no wrong in the eyes of the people of Lowell, Mass. Then a promising hotshot boxer, Dicky has since succumbed to drug addiction, ending up a total disappointment 15 years later.

He still plays an important role in the boxing world, training his half-brother Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), who's looking to take his own shot at glory. But, Dicky's disruptive lifestyle provides little help for his younger sibling, who has always lived in his brother's shadow, even more so lately with an HBO film crew interviewing Dicky about his fall from grace and his alleged plans to get back on top.

Through his own hard work and perseverance, Micky finds himself at the precipice of having a real career in the sport, but becoming a success might mean having to break ties with his troublesome brother, who continues to screw up his life, and their domineering mother (Melissa Leo), who has served as his manager for years and doesn't intend to let her son change the status quo.

Wahlberg goes the distance as Micky, a lifelong scrapper who finds his greatest fights not in the ring but at home, with his bond with his brother becoming a powder keg that gets closer and closer to blowing up in their faces.

Though we never once see him have a serious moment while wearing gloves, Bale bobs and weaves with the best of them as Dicky, who has long since been down for the count in his life, becoming a pathetic washout who brags endlessly about his career highlight: knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard under suspicious circumstances.

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However, his almost comic personality becomes much more serious when he comes to the horrible realization that HBO is not planning to build up his nonexistent comeback but rather using his life as a cautionary tale about crack addiction.

Amy Adams surprises in an uncharacteristic role as Charlene, a bartender with whom Micky tries to start a relationship, though his family does not approve. Still, she's willing to throw down at a moment's notice, even if she has to take on all seven of Micky and Dicky's trashy sisters at once.

Leo is alternately tender and terrifying as family matriarch Alice, who calls the shots for her husband (Jack McGee) and grown kids, egregiously favoring her elder son and denying just how badly he has wasted his life and continues to hurt his brother's chances to make something of his.

It's hard to tell just who the title of this movie applies to, as everybody spends the entire story fighting one another, whether physically or verbally. The majority of the plot is devoted to Micky trying to break free of the vortex of familial guilt before the audience remembers, "Oh, yeah, this is supposed to be a movie about boxing."

The real-life story of Eklund and Ward is less like feel-good stories of pugilism like "Rocky" or "Cinderella Man" and more like "Fat City" or "Raging Bull," in which the real opponents are all the personal obstacles on the way to the big brawl.

Director David O. Russell — who's been known to come to blows with his actors behind the scenes of features such as "Three Kings" and "I ♥ Huckabees" — clearly isn't looking to make a hero out of either of his main characters, but he is able to show the rapport of these two brothers without reverting to cheap sentimentality or ignoring the fact that one sibling is incredibly selfish and the other a self-appointed whipping boy looking to prove himself.

But, once Micky's entrance song, Whitesnake's "Here I Go Again," starts playing, you'll be in his corner right up to his victory tune, Kool Moe Dee's "How Ya Like Me Now."

Though it goes for a few more rounds than it should, "The Fighter" is a powerful entry in the boxing genre that will hit close to home for those who have received inadequate support in their dreams for whatever reason. Of course, the relevance of the material is made all the better by a cast that really packs a wallop in their individual portrayals.

Oscar nominations all around.

Movie at a glance

“The Fighter”

3 out of 4 stars

114 minutes

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo.