Christian Bale, left, and Mark Wahlberg star in David O. Russell's boxing drama The Fighter. ((JoJo Whilden/Alliance Films))

The Fighter comes out swinging. In the film’s opening, the camera follows half-brothers Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) as they saunter down the streets of their working-class ‘hood, stopping to preen and roughhouse for a crowd of adoring neighbours.

Director David O. Russell understands dysfunction and the most interesting battles in The Fighter take place outside the ring.

Set to the funky strains of a tune by The Heavy called How You Like Me Now?, this sweeping, electric scene feels plucked right out of Scorsese’s Mean Streets. The Fighter sustains this loose, rough-and-tumble energy for a good hour before succumbing to the more conventional trappings of the boxing movie genre.

Though they share the same limber, athletic gait, it’s clear from the start that Micky and Dicky are on different paths. Modeled on a pair of real-life sparring brothers, Micky is a disciplined welterweight at the start of his career, while Dicky’s legendary days (which included fighting Sugar Ray Leonard) are long behind him. Dicky is convinced that his participation in an upcoming HBO documentary will help resurrect his boxing-ring glory; in reality, this manic guy can barely stay off the crack pipe long enough to hit the gym.

Micky knows Dicky’s an addict, but idolizes him all the same, and his trashy, Scotch-swilling mother, Alice (Melissa Leo, chewing her way through every scene she’s in), does nothing to discourage their destructive bond. Chain-smoking and barking orders ringside, Alice barely notices Micky, even as she’s acting as his manager. She prefers to crow about her firstborn, and doesn’t hesitate to send Micky into a match he’s guaranteed to lose. The humiliating results drive the young boxer into the arms of a foul-mouthed barmaid named Charlene (Amy Adams, who deftly undoes her nice-girl persona), the one townie in all of Lowell, Mass., bold enough to call Micky’s toxic family members on their B.S.

Director David O. Russell (Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees) understands dysfunction and the most interesting battles in The Fighter take place outside the ring. The film works best as an unflinching family drama, and Russell has a clever way of establishing the clan’s sick dynamic with the camera. At nearly every gathering, the watchful, withdrawn Micky is placed off to the side of the frame. Though he probably craves attention, he’s too meek to ask for it, and knows he’ll never compete with Dicky, whose boyish, mugging charm enables him to take command of any room he’s in.

Dicky overpowers the movie, too – which is a shame, because Mark Wahlberg has never been better. As the well-meaning kid attempting to keep everyone happy, he gives a thoughtful, introverted performance, quietly suggesting the emotional demons he’s fighting in the way he carries his heavy, slightly defeated frame.

Staying true to his character, Wahlberg graciously stands back and lets Christian Bale own the movie, and The Fighter’s biggest highs come courtesy of his gloriously outsized performance. Bale hasn’t been this fun since American Psycho, and he relishes every minute of playing Dicky, a twitchy, bug-eyed "junk head" that struts around and relates tall tales with peacock bravado, even as he’s hitting rock bottom. Like all junkies, Dicky is a gifted con artist, and Bale invests the character with a magnetism that explains why his family members can’t let him go. Hauled out of a crack den by his weeping mama, he turns around and melts her heart with his rendition of an old Bee Gees tune.


Melissa Leo plays Alice Ward in The Fighter. ((JoJo Whilden/Alliance Films) )

Bale is so formidable that The Fighter feels a bit off-balance whenever he’s not around. Once Dicky winds up in the slammer, the movie shifts its focus; Russell, almost as an afterthought, hunkers down to tell the story of Micky’s redemption as a boxer. Though the family angle of his comeback feels credible – viewers will cheer when Micky relieves his exhausting, guilt-tripping mother of her managing duties – the underdog’s rapid ascent through the welterweight ranks is never as compelling as the dramas at home.

Russell takes a fresh approach to the film’s fight scenes. Rather than going for Raging Bull’s operatic beauty, he captures Micky’s matches in swift, handheld moves, and gussies things up with all of the garish lighting and tacky branding of an ESPN television broadcast circa 1995. It’s lively, but can’t disguise the fact that the film’s pacing is off. These sparring bouts, staged in quick succession and unfolding so fast they’re over before they start, arrive too late in the movie to achieve full emotional impact.

I suspect some of the fight scenes are deliberately anti-climactic. Russell details his characters’ poverty and rough edges with such care, The Fighter feels more like a gritty 1970s drama than a sentimental story aiming to please multiplex crowds. But when some of the principal characters undergo radical personality shifts late in the game, it’s less forgivable, since the rest of The Fighter is tough-minded enough to know better.

In spite of the cast’s effort, you’ll never feel as invested in the film’s resolution as you do when Micky’s loved ones are duking it out behind the closed doors of their ramshackle home. In the end, The Fighter is at its most authentic when it’s depicting the horrors of co-dependency (a word probably not heard that much in Lowell).

When Micky confides to one of the trainers at the gym that Dicky has always "been in my corner, I can’t do it without him," The Fighter touches on a scary truth that’s never quite resolved. Dicky’s a vulture, but Micky can’t wholly function without him, and The Fighter suffers the same fate. Though the film purports to be all about "Irish" Micky Ward, it desperately needs Bale. He’s a joy to watch – a powerhouse capable of convincing us all that The Fighter is a knockout.

The Fighter opens Dec. 17.

Lee Ferguson writes about the arts for CBC News.