It's rich business, and it gives Mark Wahlberg (as Micky), Christian Bale (as Dicky), Melissa Leo (in big hair, as their mother, Alice), and Amy Adams (Charlene, Micky's barkeep girlfriend) the chance to dive deep into a colorful, hardscrabble world. Working on a road-paving crew in hometown Lowell, Mass., one day, riding a limo to an Atlantic City arena the next.
Russell has a knack for the nutty. Three Kings (also with Wahlberg) was an anarchic war-zone heist pic, Flirting With Disaster a loopy screwball saga, I Huckabees a weird existential romp. And while there are laughs here (lots - but I love Adams' Charlene wisecracking on Micky's choice of a date-night movie, a subtitled Luis Buñuel pic!), the director proves impressively adept at staging and shooting the fights. With a tip of the gloves to Scorsese and Raging Bull, Russell delivers the punches in a series of brutal bouts.
Ward, in his epic stands against the likes of Alfonso Sanchez and Arturo Gatti, withstood pummeling upon pummeling - it was Dicky's strategy to have his brother wear opponents down by letting them beat him up for a half-dozen rounds, and then come back and deal the mighty blow.
Russell and his cinematographer, Hoyte Van Hoytema (the Swedish teen vampire romance Let the Right One In), record the thunderous punches and rib-crunching clashes with an authenticity that's visceral, jolting. This is the kind of role that Wahlberg excels at - stoic, sturdy, focused - and he's formidable. You feel for the guy.
And Bale, as Dicky, whose glory days are gone and who's now battling with addiction issues, gives another of his scary-real performances. Hopped up, sunken-eyed, and scrawny, Dicky is a wreck, and he's wrecking his brother's career. (Dicky is the crackhead ghost of Terry Malloy - he coulda been a contender.) Bloodlines and bad blood, bonds and betrayal - it's all here. The family conflicts are as messy and intense as the slugfests in the ring.
The mugs on the actors orbiting Wahlberg, Bale, Adams, and Leo - the women Russell lined up to play the sisters, the guys in the gym, the crack-den denizens - are chiseled and crooked and about as unglamorous as Hollywood gets. Diane Arbus could have been the casting director. The Fighter is pug-ugly, and proud.
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/