Who exactly does the title of David O. Russell's The Fighter refer to? There are so many possibilities to choose from.
The obvious answer is "Irish" Micky Ward, the real-life boxer played by Mark Wahlberg with a strength and stolid honesty that marks this actor's increasingly assured performances. But Russell's gripping, involving film offers other choices as well.
It could be Dickie Eklund, Micky's live-wire half-brother played with strung-out sangfroid by Christian Bale. Dickie, himself a former boxer, is now battling an addiction to crack that threatens his relationship with Micky, for whom he serves as trainer and adviser.
Or it might refer to Alice, mother to both men, played with maternal ferocity and self-interest by Melissa Leo. Or it might even by Charlene, the under-achieving bartender played by Amy Adams, who connects with Micky and becomes the conscience and protector he's long needed.
Everyone, it seems, is struggling with something in Russell's film - with life, with its obstacles, with each other. Russell's film, based on a true story, brings it all into the mix, creating a story that roils with excitement, tension and humanity.
Russell's film picks up in the early 1990s, watching as an HBO film crew follows Micky and Dickie as they train for Micky's next fight. Dickie, whose wild eyes all but shoot sparks, repeats the story of the time he fought Sugar Ray Leonard and knocked him down. It is plainly the high point of a life that has since gone into precipitous decline and may never reach that kind of peak again. Dickie has dined out on that story so long that even it, his most cherished possession, is becoming a bit frayed.
Micky is his talented but less-driven brother, 10 years younger, in peak fighting condition, but with a career that seems to be going nowhere. The reason: Micky has left the management of his future to Alice and Dickie, who are more interested in immediate paydays than career development. When Micky is approached by a manager who offers to pay for his training (so Micky doesn't have to work on road crews and train in his spare time), Dickie and Alice badmouth the interloper, playing on Micky's sense of family loyalty and guilt.
But when Micky gets pummeled by a much-larger opponent, substituted at the last minute in a fight that was supposed to put Micky on track for a title shot, he finally reaches his limit. Licking his wounds, he distances himself from his mother and brother. But Dickie still manages to get himself arrested and pull Micky into a police brawl that ends with Micky's hand smashed by a police baton.
Dickie goes away to prison while Micky reassesses his life and career and launches himself in a new direction. To his horror, Dickie discovers that the HBO documentary isn't about his own boxing comeback but, rather, is part of a documentary series on the effects of crack.
Eventually, Dickie gets out of prison - by which time Micky's career is back on track. He's having success working without Alice and Dickie. But he wins the fight puts him in line for a title shot because of strategy Dickie gives him. Which leads to a dilemma when Dickie wants to rejoin his team.
The fight sequences are visceral and realistic (as opposed to the brutal bludgeoning cartoonishness of, say, the Rocky movies). Russell puts you right in the ring - and Wahlberg has the moves and the physique to be credible as a determined, thinking fighter who understands that strategy is as important as punching power.
But the real struggles in this drama are outside the ring: the alternately nurturing and toxic pull of family. It would seem like overkill if it weren't true: Alice has nine kids, including a gaggle of grown daughters who follow her like a posse of harpies, adding their Greek chorus of opinions to any situation. It's a fascinating example of poisonous family dynamics that Russell controls like a ringmaster.
Bale is obviously going to get the lion's share of the attention, for his bug-eyed, responsibility-shirking Dickie, a guy who initially can't get out of his own way. He captures the struggle of the post-jail Dickie, whose commitment to Micky keeps him painfully on the straight and narrow.
But Wahlberg is outstanding here - and Leo proves once again that she is one of our finest, most versatile actors. The three of them are completely believable as a family that has a lot of history that requires them to forgive and move on.
The Fighter is upbeat but harrowing, a story of family cohesion threatened by implosion. It's a fine boxing story - but it's an even more compelling story of relationships worth fighting for.