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Originally published Thursday, December 16, 2010 at 12:04 AM

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Movie review

'The Fighter': Two parts punchy drama, one part formulaic sports movie

A review of "The Fighter," starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo. Director David O. Russell sets up a brilliant family drama, then sucker punches the audience with a well-acted but predictable sports-story ending.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3 stars

'The Fighter,' with Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, Jack McGee. Directed by David O. Russell, from a screenplay by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson. 114 minutes. Rated R for language throughout, drug content, some violence and sexuality. Several theaters.

A gritty, fact-based fairy tale set in working-class Lowell, Mass., "The Fighter" is quite effective as drama — that is, until it abruptly changes genres in its final act. Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) are half-brothers whose roles in their large family have changed in recent years: Dicky, once a boxing hero, has become a crack-smoking scammer. Micky, the younger brother, is a rising star in the boxing world. And the family is about to be further divided, as Micky decides to listen to his strong-willed girlfriend (Amy Adams) and ditch his mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), as his manager.

And it's all very compelling, as we watch this family imploding. Wahlberg gives a deceptively low-key performance as the movie's still point, perfectly setting off the crackling fuse that is Bale's Dicky, a grinning strutter who knows he's screwed up but can't quite say goodbye to the limelight. (He routinely exits his grubby home by diving out a back window into a garbage Dumpster; an appropriate metaphor for his life.)

Leo, marching through the movie in a leopard-print jacket and cruelly bleached hair, speaks in a singsong squawk, accompanied by a sort of Greek chorus of seven braying daughters. All eight women, at one point, set themselves against Adams' Charlene in a potential front-porch fistfight, and it's a credit to Adams' flinty, chin-lifted-high portrayal that you think she stands a chance.

But just as all of this is building to a potentially fascinating climax — will Alice finally recognize that Dicky has failed her? Will Micky fully understand the destructive influence of his family? Will we ever learn the sisters' real names? — director David O. Russell and the screenwriters suddenly seem to lose interest, and "The Fighter," just like that, becomes a sports movie. A well-acted one, to be sure, but less complex and less interesting than what's come before, with family tensions melting like snowflakes as Micky trains for the Big Fight.

"Raging Bull" this isn't — Leo's raging, you realize with disappointment, is more interesting than anything happening in the ring.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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