The Fighter – Knockout performances make David O Russell’s boxing drama an Oscar contender with class

The Fighter - Mark Wahlberg's Mickey Ward goes for a knockout in the Oscar-nominated boxing movie

Do true stories make the best boxing movies?

In the red corner, Martin Scorsese’s 1980 classic Raging Bull, based on the life of middleweight champ Jake La Motta, comes out swinging in the cause of realism.

But over in the blue corner, looking a little punchy, perhaps, but refusing to take a dive, Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky makes the case for fantasy.

Personally, I don’t think this fight will go the bell, but while that pair slugs it out, here comes the latest contender…

The Fighter, punching above its weight with seven Oscar nominations, is another based-on-truth tale of a scrappy underdog who triumphs against the odds. Played by Mark Wahlberg, ‘Irish’ Micky Ward is a journeyman boxer whose career in the early 1990s isn’t going anywhere. His problem isn’t lack of talent. No, his handicap is his spectacularly dysfunctional family.

The Fighter - Christian Bale & Mark Wahlberg play half-brothers Micky Ward & Dicky Eklund

Micky’s elder half-brother, Dicky (Christian Bale), was once a boxing contender himself and even put the great Sugar Ray Leonard down on the canvas. Now, however, he’s a wasted crackhead, so out of it that he believes the TV crew that’s following him around the streets of the brothers’ hardscrabble hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts, is there to record his ‘comeback’, rather than using him as a case study of the perils of addiction.

Dicky insists on acting as Micky’s trainer, while their fearsome mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), serves as his manager, urged on by a chippy, hard-faced chorus line formed by the brothers’ seven sisters and half-sisters.

A punch-bag in and out of the ring, Micky hasn’t a hope until he hooks up with feisty local barmaid Charlene (Amy Adams, cast defiantly against type), who persuades him that he has to cut loose from his family to stand a chance in the ring. When Micky does get a shot at the championship, however, his path to the title bout takes a series of unexpected twists and turns…

The ring action in The Fighter is bruising enough, but it’s the drama outside the ropes that will leave you reeling.  At least the combatants are wearing gloves when they go toe to toe inside the ring. At home, with Micky caught in the middle as his pugnacious women slug it out with curses if not fists, the Queensberry Rules don’t apply.

As a viewer, you’re left feeling battered too. In compensation, director David O Russell gets terrific performances from his cast, with Bale, Leo and Adams all picking up Oscar nominations. Wahlberg is a lot less flashy than his co-stars (particularly Bale’s high-wire, tragic-comic turn as the strung-out Dicky), yet it’s his solidly convincing, straight from the shoulder performance that anchors the film.

On general release from 4th February.

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