In the films of recent years that have taken place in and around Boston, the location isn't just a setting, a row-house look, or an occasion for showy pahk the cah accents. It's a state of mind. And in no recent movie has that state of mind been more colorful, more blood-tie pungent, more tribal than it is in The Fighter. A true-life rise-of-the-underdog boxing saga, directed with volatile handheld immediacy by David O. Russell (Three Kings), it's set in Lowell, Mass., the working-class Beantown satellite city that, if anything, incarnates the proudly parochial, macho Irish Catholic essence of Boston more purely than Boston does.
The central figure, Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), is an up-and-coming welterweight who is being groomed to become the next ''pride of Lowell.'' The original pride of Lowell is his older half brother, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), a local boxing legend-turned-layabout who cemented his 15 minutes of glory back in the '80s when he knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard in the middle of a headline bout. But did he really knock him down, or did Sugar Ray just trip? That very confusion is presented as the epitome of Lowell, a city of tough, bruised underdog egos who are forever fighting for their status. When Micky, muscular and ambitious, a little shy but determined, goes down to the gym to spar with his retired bro, who has been training him for this moment ever since Micky was a kid, he seems to have everything going for him. In reality, though, he has everything hanging over him: the mythical status of his brother; the expectations of his feisty, clinging family his domineering manager mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), and half a dozen frowzy, big-haired sisters; and the mystique of Lowell itself. To complicate matters, Dicky, once a hero, has devolved into a fractious, motormouthed crack addict who hides his addiction behind a brashness that's a half step from craziness. He comes on as Micky's ally but may, in fact, be his greatest liability. Can Micky cut him loose to become the champion he was meant to be?
That's the question that drives The Fighter, and part of what makes the movie such a satisfying, emotionally rounded tale of pugilistic passion and family psychodrama is that the answer isn't as simple as it looks. Wahlberg, doing his soft-spoken/explosive sensitive-bruiser thing, is perfect as the young man who must consider dropping his dysfunctional clan to triumph in the ring. And Bale, cadaverous and google-eyed, with a jack-o'-lantern grin and an energy so manic it borders on the obscene, finally takes the compulsion toward Method eccentricity that's been driving him for close to a decade and makes it pay off. His Dicky is that rare thing: a wing nut with soul and a touch of tragedy, too. Melissa Leo, in a glue-spray bouffant, is vital as the kind of boxing-world stage mother who could kill a kid with love, and Amy Adams, as the bartender who becomes Micky's girlfriend, has a spot-on tough-chick allure. There's a certain predictability to The Fighter, yet that's part of the appeal of the fight genre. This one, as thoughtful as it is rousing, scores a TKO. A-