There’s already word that Christian Bale will be nominated for an Oscar for his turn as Dicky Eklund, and the recognition is wholly deserved. While not exactly the focus, Dicky is undoubtedly the driving force of this film, and the usually-reserved Bale manages to exude the mad (and infectious) charisma of his subject even in Dicky’s worst moments, at once creating a heroic dunderhead and (as revealed by an appearance of the actual Dicky Eklund in the film) a pretty accurate nod to the spirit of his real-life counterpart. Bale goes so far as to nail down Dicky’s lanky physicality perfectly, a subtlety of performance that is highlighted in one great scene in which Dicky and Mickey compare their fighting styles.

By contrast, Mark Wahlberg pretty much portrays the same quiet, semi-vulnerable tough-guy persona we’ve seen in films like Four Brothers or We Own The Night. I’ll leave it to you to decide if the close proximity between Wahlberg and Ward’s actual working-class Massachusetts upbringings give the actor’s portrayal “authenticity,” but for my part, I have to criticize Wahlberg for letting the supporting players outshine the lead so brightly.

While a lot of focus will be on two leading men’s performances, for me it was actually the women of The Fighter who stole the show. Indie actress Melissa Leo is almost unrecognizable as Mickey’s dragon-lady mother, Alice. With her withered townie look, perpetual veil of cigarette smoke and grating voice practically hissing each and every syllable in her New England brogue, Leo is a scene-stealer of the best kind. Amy Adams is handed the tall order of trading barbs with both Leo and Bale throughout the film, and here she proves just why she has been twice nominated for an Oscar so early in her budding career. Charlene is that “girl who gets the guy” type, but she is no Adrian to Mickey’s Rocky, by any means. If anything, Charlene is a fearless, more level-headed (read: no B.S.) version of Alice, and her confrontations with the dragon mother and Dicky’s gang of sisters (an awesome ensemble of character actresses) make for the most hilarious and entertaining scenes in the movie.

Supporting performances by Jack McGee and Mickey O’Keefe – as the two belabored father-figures shoehorned into helping Mickey along to greatness, while keeping the tainted side of the family at bay – are equally strong (and funny).

Russell’s direction wisely keeps the focus set on these primary characters, and never wanders off into the tempting realm of sports action. In the boxing sequences (which are staged to mimic ’90s-era HBO broadcasts, to good effect), the director keeps the camera tight on the faces and bodies of his primary cast, letting their expressions and gestures (whether they’re in the ring or in the crowd) convey the context and story behind the sports spectacle – which is the entire point of the film.

Outside of the ring, Russell makes his version of Lowell look gritty and real – and I’m not talking that “polished grit” you see in films like Ron Howard’s Depression-era Cinderella Man. From the “costumes,” to the terrain, to the photography, cinematography and the (semi-)unflattering physical appearance of the actors (even the lovely Adams flashes some pale, fleshy curves and a washed-out look) this polished movie looks the part of an unpolished indie film, again relying on characters and acting instead of production values to carry it. A wise decision.

All in all, The Fighter is one of the top movie experiences of the year for me. Great performances, great filmmaking and a genuinely enjoyable journey following characters you’ll likely have a hard time forgetting. A bonafide must-see this holiday season.

Check out the trailer for The Fighter:

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Our Rating:

5 out of 5

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