If there's something I've said in several other reviews of movies that are inherently cliche-based that deserves to be repeated here, it's this: if you can do something interesting with the conventional material you're working with, or if you can at least make the characters worth caring about, the film is certain to be at least good, despite the familiarity of the material. Such is the case with THE FIGHTER, a predictable film about boxing that has more strengths than weaknesses (the tragically humdrum title being among the latter). The boxing sequences in the film aren't anything special, and for the most part, we can easily predict who will win which fight, but that's of little importance when the film's emotional conflicts are so well-developed and when we get a couple of outstanding supporting performances in the midst of it all.
In fact, if you look at THE FIGHTER from the perspective that I viewed it, you'll find that it's more of a love story than a film about boxing. But it's not a rosy love story. It's about how one tough bitch, Charlene (Amy Adams) tries to save the guy she's fallen in love with, Micky (Mark Wahlberg), from being controlled by his family, mainly his mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), and his brother, Dicky (Christian Bale). Perhaps without noticing, Alice and Dicky are basically "using" Micky's boxing talents for purposes that are more self-serving than they may even realize. Charlene not only realizes what Micky's family is doing to him, but she realizes that she believes in Micky's potential as a fighter, and decides she's going to do whatever she can to help him succeed, even if that means separating him from his mother and brother. Family dynamics unravel, and much drama ensues.
What I described in the above paragraph might make the film seem corny, but the reason why it's not is that the character of Charlene isn't one of these weak females who sobs as she watches the man she loves take a beating on the ring (cough, CINDERELLA MAN). I don't know how else to put this, but Charlene is one tough bitch ("I'll see you in Micky's corner, otherwise go fuck yourself"). She exemplifies that several times verbally, and even physically at one point. And something similar can be said of the film as a whole: it has no qualms about displaying a fucked-up family life. THE FIGHTER doesn't try to sanitize anything. The film's best scene takes place in the living room on the first occasion that Micky's entire family meets Charlene and everyone lays out their (very) different ideas of what Micky's immediate future as a boxer should look like.
Mark Wahlberg's lead performance is decent. It's not a particularly showy role, so he correctly goes for subtleness more than anything else. Christian Bale is getting loads of acclaim for his work as the frenetic, crack-addicted older brother, and as great as his work is during the film's final act, I found his performance during the first half hour to be a bit cartoonish: you can only widen your eyes so much before the audience members are going to want to yell "OKAY, we get it, you're really high right now." It's another story with Amy Adams and Melissa Leo, though. Both women give two of the year's best supporting performances, and they both easily deserve Oscar nominations. This is outside Adams' comfort zone, because she's not playing a weak, soft-voiced character this time around, and the interesting thing is that she's a playing a character that you would normally EXPECT to be like that. The mental fortitude and toughness that she exhibits in the role of Charlene is something to marvel at, and she is absolutely fantastic in the climactic scene when Charlene and Dicky have their final showdown of sorts on her front porch. Leo is unrecognizable. I can't believe this is the same person who, two years ago, gave an astounding lead performance as the struggling wife and mother in FROZEN RIVER. She plays a different type of mother in THE FIGHTER for sure, but she's tremendously good here as well. Plenty of other actresses would've played Alice as a straight-up villain, but Leo gives us something much better. We get someone who means well, yet can be savagely selfish and mean-spirited in the process of meaning well. She does an expert job at avoiding going over the top (unlike Bale) during a scene in which she's standing at the kitchen throwing pots and pans at her husband.
THE FIGHTER doesn't do as many wonders with the boxing cliche as Clint Eastwood did six years ago when he directed MILLION DOLLAR BABY. After all the intense drama that we're exposed to during THE FIGHTER, the resolution feels a little too pat for my taste. Still, the strength of its performances and the expert way in which all the layers of the film's conflicts are handled make it easily recommendable.