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The Fighter's a smash hit

Googley-eyed Christian Bale gives a knockout performance

Welterweight boxer "Irish" Micky Ward could be forgiven for thinking, with his half-brother Dicky Eklund in his corner, who needs opponents? David O. Russell's brash biopic The Fighter ostensibly tracks the longshot rise of Micky (Mark Wahlberg), but Christian Bale's knockout performance as Dicky delivers the film's most compelling personality.

Dicky boxed for a decade and took the nickname "The Pride of Lowell" (Massachusetts) before becoming his younger brother's trainer and sparring partner. Dicky's crack addiction and delusions of his own celebrity, however, threaten to keep Micky in Palookaville. In the promos, Paramount Pictures emphasizes The Fighter's theme of triumph over working-class adversity à la Rocky, but Russell treats the material every bit as much as a raucous comedy of a combative family.

In one of the first scenes, both Micky and an HBO documentary film crew follow in Dicky's wake as he struts through the neighborhood, summoning an impromptu parade of fans, well-wishers and baffled strangers. Their mother Alice (Melissa Leo) serves as both of their managers, but shows more hunger for the limelight than business savvy. In one match, Micky gets pummeled by a bruiser out of his weight class thanks to Alice and Dicky's poor judgment.

Recently, Bale has played so many intense embodiments of justice and order, from The Dark Knight to Public Enemies, that his portrayal of rapid-talking, eye-popping Dicky is like seeing an entirely new actor. He upstages Wahlberg so thoroughly that if the film were a boxing match, the ref would stop the fight. Wahlberg still proves well cast: Despite his bulked up musculature, Micky turns out to be a painfully conflict-averse puppy dog who'd rather take a beating than go against his family.

Micky learns to stick up for himself through his romance with Charlene (Amy Adams), a hot, no-nonsense bartender. Faced with the hostility of Alice and Micky's legion of high-haired, chain-smoking sisters, Charlene repeatedly wades into the lioness' den and deflects epithets such as "bar skank." Russell gets plenty of laughs at the sisters' expense, but also clearly adores the fractious family.

The Fighter represents a major comeback for Russell, who cultivates a spontaneous vibe in the acting and rock soundtrack and explores the costs of drug addiction without delivering clichéd sermons. The characters come on so strong that the more familiar training montages and boxing scenes feel conventional by comparison. At least Russell brings a live TV-style immediacy the bouts, so they look reasonably realistic. In The Fighter, however, the real donnybrooks take place outside the ring.