The Fighter is based on the true story of Lowell, Mass., light welterweight champ "Irish" Micky Ward, but, starring Boston working-class hero Mark Wahlberg, it plays as a Rocky-fied fairy tale for our time: Consigned to Palookaville, a sweet, unassuming boxer with more heart than brains steps up—all the way to the top. David O. Russell's first movie since his star-studded New Age screwball comedy I Heart Huckabees crashed and burned at the box office in 2004, The Fighter doesn't seem an especially personal film for him. The first 30 minutes are rich in moxie, thanks to Christian Bale's wired, wild-eyed performance as the former "Pride of Lowell"—Ward's older half-brother, Dicky Eklund, a noisy ghost living on crack fumes and memories of his fight with Sugar Ray Leonard. Once upon a time, Dicky might have been The Fighter's fallen hero. Post–World War II boxing films were all about class struggle and Hollywood boxers were tragic figures until Sylvester Stallone changed the game, upping the genre's ethnic ante and opting for a Cinderella structure. And so, after a volatile first half, Micky eclipses Dicky and The Fighter settles into a predictably rutted narrative arc. By the time Micky faces off against an opponent so arrogant that he won't even shake hands, the bouts are as overdetermined as professional wrestling. Although the movie ends before Ward's epic battles with Arturo Gatti, The Fighter shares Rocky's optimistic trajectory and then some.
In Wahlberg's star project, Bale will likely reap the nominations.
Opens at Metro and other theaters, Fri., Dec. 17. Rated R. 110 minutes.