With the notable exception of his exuberant performance as the unstoppable Dieter Dengler in Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn, Christian Bale has spent the decade since American Psycho playing roles that showcase his anger, austerity, or some combination of the two. It’s been so easy to forget the charismatic star behind all that jaw-clenching seriousness that his remarkable turn as Dickie Eklund in The Fighter comes as a welcome surprise. Looking nearly as gaunt as he famously did for The Machinist, Bale plays a crack-addicted former boxer—the “pride” of working-class Lowell, Massachusetts—who seems to earn second, third, and fourth chances purely on the basis of his crooked smile and shambling underdog charm.
Bale’s live-wire performance typifies the many major and minor elements that elevate The Fighter from the deeply conventional sports movie it might have been into the endearingly offbeat sports movie it turns out to be. Based on a true story, the film focuses on the relationship between half-brothers: Dickie, a former palooka whose greatest achievement was a spirited showing against Sugar Ray Leonard, and Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a bruising welterweight whose loyalty to his flaky brother and brassy, controlling mother (Melissa Leo) has stunted his growth. Micky’s relationship with a bartender (Amy Adams) gives him the confidence and support to consider a different course, but at the expense of a painful fallout with his family.
Stories about working-class boxers punching above their station aren’t exactly new, but director David O. Russell (Three Kings) and his team do everything they can to evoke the humble setting and the complex—and often quite funny—dynamic between Micky and a family that doesn’t always have his best interests at heart. Wahlberg normally disappears in quieter roles, but here he subtly conveys the weak, impressionable kid who quivers behind his hulking exterior. The film occasionally gets too cartoonish with the local color, but its tone is brash and big-hearted, and the decision to go broad leaves plenty of room for Bale to play Dickie as New England’s answer to Ratso Rizzo. The Fighter doesn’t try to upend the genre, but it’s a reminder of how satisfying these movies can be when they’re done right.