Review: The Fighter (15) *****

LESS a boxing movie than a biopic of modern white trash America, The Fighter nevertheless joins the pantheon of pugilistic classics as a blisteringly honest portrait of the life and times of "Irish" Mickey Ward.

Mickey is played by Mark Wahlberg, an actor slowly evolving into one of the most watchable of his generation. Yet all eyes are on Christian Bale as his crack addict brother, Dicky, a disaster of a human being and former slugger who, 14 years earlier, had a shot at glory and blew it.

Years later Dicky is living on past glories as a deluded failure. Micky, meanwhile, has a chance at the big time.

To reach it and fulfil his dreams he must distance himself from his brother, mother/manager and clan of sisters, all of whom cling to the ideal of small-town life. With the fight game as his backdrop director David O Russell focuses on the familial pressures that drive these two very different men.

Mark Wahlberg, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo all score highly as Micky, his lover and his mother. But it is Bale who steals every scene in this true-life tale as the washed-up, strung-out wastrel.

Rightly he received one of the film's seven Oscar nominations alongside Adams and Leo.

A one-two combination of Rocky and Million Dollar Baby with a touch of Raging Bull, The Fighter gets up close and personal in the ring, but the boxing action is limited. Instead the real story is the love-hate relationship between Micky and Dicky, between Micky and his mother and the love affair between Micky and Charlene (Adams), the feisty barmaid who becomes his fiercest fan.

Bale has nabbed awards at several ceremonies and has been vocal in his praise of Wahlberg in a solid leading role. Without Wahlberg's application, Bale's mad-eyed quasi histrionics would be almost laughable. Instead he benefits from a balance that makes The Fighter one of the key films of 2011.

On general release