As it’s based on a true story, “The Fighter” can’t delve into the haymaking excesses that made Stallone’s franchise – up to “Rocky IV,” at least - so much campy fun. Even so, director David O. Russell doesn’t shy away from the “against-all-odds” clichés of Micky’s humble life in working class Lowell, Mass., where as the film begins he’s desperately trying to slug his way out of a three-fight losing streak.
Booked by his shrewish manager-mother (Melissa Leo) as a hard-punching “stepping stone” for boxers on their way up, the laconic Micky is buffeted from all sides by a destructive family dynamic that includes a gaggle of squabbling sisters and his older half-brother and sparring partner, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), a crack addicted ex-fighter locally famous for knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard in a long-ago match.
The rivalry and camaraderie between the brothers serves as the movie’s center, with Dicky’s inevitable drug-induced fall given as much attention as Micky’s steady rise within the boxing ranks. The headlining actors have excellent chemistry - a tense jailhouse tête-à-tête between the two serves as the film’s strongest moment. In Micky’s world, it seems the family quarrels that take place outside the ring are just as damaging as the real punches he absorbs inside the squared circle.
There are pieces of a good movie here, and Wahlberg is one of them. As Micky, Wahlberg is well within his wheelhouse as a downcast everyman drowning in his loved ones’ good intentions. The former teen heartthrob spent several years weight training in anticipation for the role, which lends intense realism to the solid and exciting fight scenes where Wahlberg takes every punch – no stunt double needed.
“The Fighter” is less successful in evading the worn chestnuts of the genre. Micky finds the love of a good woman in Charlene, played with foul-mouthed barfly hotness by the versatile Amy Adams, and there’s even the genre-standard training montage set to hair metal instead of “Eye of the Tiger.”
There’s also the matter of Bale’s feverish portrayal of Dicky. The famously volatile actor, who lost a massive amount of weight in going “full method” for the role, is alternately the best and worst thing about “The Fighter.” His wild eyed, loose-limbed performance has already sparked some early Oscar talk, and Bale’s transformation from Batman into a human pencil is shocking to behold, even if he did look more grotesquely emaciated in “The Machinist.”
Unfortunately, Bale’s Kirk Lazarus-like makeover also comes with the “Tropic Thunder” character’s Oscar-baiting penchant for overacting. Bale’s twitchy spasticity and braying faux-Southie accent may reflect the real-life Dicky (who makes an appearance during the credits), but a little restraint would have given a handful of melodrama-heavy scenes some much-needed nuance.
Director Russell’s earnest attempt to fill the movie with such “moments” makes the movie feel emotionally flat. A laggy middle section that doesn’t find its rubber-legged footing until the last couple of reels further downgrades the proceedings. “The Fighter” is a frustrating film, because as much as it strives to rise above formula conventions, it ends up eating canvas more than not.