The family dynamics are as brutal as the boxing scenes in “The Fighter,” a biopic about the ascent of welterweight Micky Ward.
Directed by David O. Russell, the film is too fractured in focus to achieve the emotional bang that its dramas, both in and outside the ring, aim for. But it’s a powerfully acted, colorfully spun underdog tale and breaking-away story.
Russell, whose credits include the off-kilter “Spanking the Monkey” and the absurdist war comedy “Three Kings,” delivers his most conventional work to date with this comedy-laced drama credited to three screenwriters.
It opens in 1993 in a working-class Lowell, Mass. setting. The landscape radiates depression and the locals speak with the actorly inflections recently heard in “Conviction” and “The Town.”
Russell alum Mark Wahlberg plays Micky Ward, a struggling fighter stuck in a codependent thicket.
The primary thorn in his glove is his half brother and trainer, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), a former boxer who clings to an old moment of glory — he knocked Sugar Ray Leonard down.
Dicky spends more time at the crack house than at the gym. Because he wants the paycheck, he forces Micky into fighting a weightier opponent, who creams him.
Also no picnic is Micky’s mother and manager, Alice (Melissa Leo), who has a steamroller personality and seven daughters with monstrous hair who seem to have inherited her scowl.
The dramatic thrust involves Micky’s divorce of sorts from the family’s grip. Encouraged by his new girlfriend, Charlene (Amy Adams), a salty-tongued bartender, Micky dumps his brother and mother from his career plan, teams up with fresh blood, and starts winning.
Russell does nothing extraordinary with the genre ingredients. The film contains every cliche from a Rocky-style training montage to a big-fight climax. The female characters are thinly defined.
Another frustration is that Russell often lets his high-pilot supporting characters take over the show. They upstage Mickey, who, despite his strength in the ring, is a somewhat passive presence.
Not to complain too much, though. Altogether, the movie’s a well-made boxing picture with extra punch and panache supplied by an able cast.
Wahlberg, believable as a boxer, gives Micky a quiet dignity that contrasts affectingly with the loudness and brashness of the other characters.
Bale, all gaunt and antsy, and Leo, loudmouthed and boozy, demonstrate what over-the-top acting should be.
Adams fills her stock good-woman role with dimension and, in a scene reflecting Russell’s flair for farce, does some fighting of her own.
The boxing scenes are efficiently basic and illustrate Micky Ward’s strategy of coming to life late in the match.
The Fighter (3 stars)
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo
Written by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson
Directed by David O. Russell
Running time 1 hour, 54 minutes