Lowell, Massachusetts. 1993. THE FIGHTER is the true story of blue collar boxer, “Irish” Micky Ward and his older brother, “Dicky” Eklund. THE FIGHTER is the quintessential American story of inner-city working class people who struggle against every odd and fight to elevate themselves beyond what society expects of them. This is the story of perseverance, of saying fuck you to the naysayers and doing it on your own terms. Above all, THE FIGHTER tells a story about family and the strength of familial bonds. In an increasingly crowded field of superb, standard-defining films this winter, THE FIGHTER is yet another strong contender for the Oscar. I know I seem a little too generous with my 5-star ratings of late, but you can chalk it up to the sheer strength of Hollywood’s recent output, which promises to make this year’s Academy Awards a fiercely competitive race.

THE FIGHTER tells the story of “Irish” Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a boxer who comes from Lowell, Massachusetts, a working class blue collar town. Ward comes from a family of 9 kids, which includes his hero, half-brother “Dicky” Eklund (Christian Bale), a former welterweight who gained some local fame (“The Pride of Lowell”) in 1978 when he fought Sugar Ray Leonard. However, Dicky’s life changed for the worse as he ended up being a crack addict and spending time in prison. Despite his problems, however, Micky practically worships his brother, with whom he spars and trains with for his boxing matches. Along with Dicky, Micky is also managed by his mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), who negotiates with boxing promoters for upcoming matches. At one time the family and the whole town of Lowell looked up to Dicky as the savior of the hard working families in the community. However, with Dicky’s decline into crack addiction, any hopes and dreams his family had of him were shattered. Emerging from his brother’s shadow, it’s up to Micky to reclaim that past glory and reverse his family’s fortunes.

I don’t care for the sport of boxing, but my favorite sports films tend to be boxing films. Unlike most other sports, boxers tend to come from poor backgrounds and they are forced to struggle through a lot of adversity before they achieve any success. I don’t know how prevalent this is in the boxing world, but that is how Hollywood has always portrayed boxers in the movies. Films such as ROCKY, RAGING BULL, CINDERELLA MAN, and MILLION DOLLAR BABY all feature characters who operate in harsh environments and who must endure and overcome immense hardship to achieve success. Boxing films are big crowd pleasers because they are the ultimate underdog stories and who can’t identify with the underdog? What’s more, these are stories about a single person, the lone individual, who must fight the big bad goliath at the end of the journey. THE FIGHTER exemplifies all these qualities of boxing films and it does so under the sure directorial hand of David O. Russell.

David O. Russell has invariably been described as a dictatorial asshole, a genius, and a flash in the pan. Few can forget Russell’s meltdown on the set of 2004’s I HEART HUCKABEES, which was captured on video and disseminated on YouTube. 1999’s THREE KINGS was as well known for the quality of the film as it was for the infamous brawl between Russell and the film’s star, George Clooney. Although some film buffs group Russell among the distinguished indie talents to have emerged during the 90s and 00s, I have never been sufficiently impressed to eagerly anticipate Russell’s projects. Nonetheless, I hold a certain amount of respect for the director for continually redefining himself. When you compare his films FLIRTING WITH DISASTER, THREE KINGS, I HEART HUCKABEES, and THE FIGHTER, its pretty amazing to think that these all came from the same person. THE FIGHTER marks the director’s most accessible and most conventional film. After the existential mess that was I HEART HUCKABEES, its nice to see Russell try his hand at a more mainstream, classic narrative.

Aside from a few modernistic techniques such as a number of documentary-style scenes and the boxing matches being shot in video, THE FIGHTER is stylistically reminiscent of 60s and 70s cinema. The look and feel of the film reminds me of such movies as DOG DAY AFTERNOON, MEAN STREETS, MIDNIGHT COWBOY, and, not surprisingly, the aforementioned ROCKY. THE FIGHTER shuns any of the glossy, studio set fakery that is typically seen in most big-budget Hollywood pics and it opts for a more realistic, documentary-style authenticity. There is a great sense of time and place in THE FIGHTER that never feels forced (I mean shit, they were even able to find acid-stained jeans and those colorful baggy pants that were so popular in the early 90s). Russell spares no detail in recreating the early 1990s and although the time period was recent enough to recreate easily, its still pretty remarkable in how little is overlooked. More importantly, Russell does a wonderful job in telling an American story. The old neighborhood gym Micky trains in, the bar he hangs out at, the streets he walks through, the people who comprise the town of Lowell, and Micky and Dicky’s perseverance in overcoming their obstacles is decidedly and uniquely American. Many critics have described this film as a movie about family and that is certainly true, but THE FIGHTER is just as much an American story as it is a family story.

With such an impressive core of performances, I’m a little reluctant to single one performance out as being the best. However, it would also be a crime to not heap a lot of praise for Christian Bale’s tour-de-force performance as the junkie brother, Dicky Eklund. Say what you will about Bale’s laughable gutteral voice that he adopted for THE DARK KNIGHT or his over-the-top, ultra serious delivery of John Conner’s character in TERMINATOR: SALVATION, Christian Bale is one hard-working, dedicated, and talented motherfucker. This being the second time he has lost an obscene amount of weight for a role (the first being for THE MACHINIST), Bale is barely recognizable from his buffed up Batman role. The actor completely transforms himself into a junkie by reducing himself almost to a skeleton. What’s equally amazing, given his natural British accent, is how well Bale adopts the working-class Massachusetts accent. To compare his tough guy roles with the loser, goofball junkie he plays in THE FIGHTER is a remarkable contrast and a testament to the actor’s versatility and range. Dicky is a sympathetic character who continues to live in the fading glory of the past when he was hailed as the “Pride of Lowell.” He’s a tragic character who’s purposely blind to the destruction and disappointment he brings upon himself and his family due to his drug addiction. One of the film’s most tense moments comes at the end when Dicky must decide whether to finally remain clean or return to his self-destructive behavior. Of all of this year’s Oscar contenders, Christian Bale has earned himself as the most deserving of winning Best Supporting Actor.

Little has been written of the equally engaging performance given by the talented Melissa Leo, who plays Micky’s mother and manager, Alice. You might remember Leo from her Academy Award-nominated performance in 2008’s FROZEN RIVER, which if you haven’t seen it, then make a point of placing it in your Netflix queue today. Alice is a hard-charging, chain-smoking, and vulgar mother who doesn’t at first seem to have her son’s best interests correctly figured out, but her efforts and dedication are ultimately redeemed. Alice serves as the head of the family, which is no small task considering she has 9 children to handle. However, for all of her tough exterior, she is a loving mother who deeply cares for her family. This at times conflicts with the best direction Micky’s career needs to take as she refuses to allow any non-family members to interfere with the management of her son’s career. In addition, her love particularly for Dicky prevents her from seeking the sort of help he needs to overcome his addiction. In a way, she enables him to continue being a junkie even though she well knows that it is slowly destroying her son. Leo handily conveys the complexity of this woman and it would be a shame for the Academy to not recognize her work here.

The biggest surprise performance in THE FIGHTER comes from Amy Adams, who plays Micky’s girlfriend, Charlene. Her character is a bartender who Micky meets at the bar where she works at. Charlene is like most of the women in Lowell: a tough-talking, straight shooter who doesn’t take shit from anyone, especially from Micky’s bitchy, nasty sisters. Coming from the outside, Charlene recognizes the fact that Micky’s family is holding him back professionally and she suggests that he adopt more professional management to handle his career. Of course, this doesn’t fly too well with Micky’s mother and his sisters and they immediately take a huge dislike to Charlene. Like Christian Bale, Adams completely transforms herself and inhabits her character, which is a huge departure from past roles she’s played.

I haven’t said anything about the main star of the movie, Mark Wahlberg, and that’s because as fine as he is in playing Micky Ward, Wahlberg gives the same exact performance he delivers in every single one of his films. For a role like Micky Ward, Wahlberg’s interpretation of the character works well enough to carry us through the film, but I couldn’t help but wonder how much better the film would have been had an actor who possessed the same acting caliber as Christian Bale been cast in the role. Then again, THE FIGHTER would probably not exist had it not been for Wahlberg’s efforts in nurturing the project to fruition so we can at least thank him for making this film possible. I just wish that a better actor had taken on the main role rather than Wahlberg.

THE FIGHTER is a great film and easily one of the best films of 2010. It is a boxing movie and boxing may not be your cup of tea, but THE FIGHTER is so much more than that. At its center, it is a story about family and commitment. Although its rags-to-riches story may be extremely predictable, the story is enhanced by stellar performances and a great ensemble direction by David O. Russell. The director refrains from employing an intrusively stylistic direction and opts instead for a classic look that is well-constructed and confident. If you end up loving this film, which I think you will, it won’t be for its brilliant boxing sequences (which are shot with broadcast video cameras, but in a cinematic style, which I found interesting). You’re going to love it because you’re rooting for a down-on-its-luck family and for the brothers.