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Knockout of a film; Fact-based 'Fighter' holds its own with best boxing movies

David O. Russell says he got hired to direct "The Fighter" after answering a question from the film's producers about what kind of movie he wanted to make. "I want to make 'Rocky,' " Russell said.

We all like a story about an underdog who triumphs over adversity, but for me, "The Fighter" is a cut above the overrated "Rocky" films. In the hands of Russell and his excellent cast and crew, "The Fighter" rises closer to the level of the champions among boxing films -- including John Huston's "Fat City," Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull" and Ron Howard's "Cinderella Man" -- in its powerful performances, realistic depiction of a time and place, and pugilistic veracity.

*"The Fighter" is out this week in a two-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo pack which also includes a digital copy, along with a single-disc DVD version ($19.99 DVD, $29.99 Blu-ray combo, Paramount). It was one of 2009's most honored films, receiving seven Academy Award nominations, including best picture and director, and winning Oscars for the supporting performances of Christian Bale and Melissa Leo.

Russell's film is based on the real-life story of two boxing brothers, Dicky Ecklund (Bale) and Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), and their combative family. Dicky, who 14 years earlier had fought a close fight with the legendary Sugar Ray Leonard, is his younger brother's trainer. But he's also a crack addict whose lucid advice to his brother is often undermined by his irresponsible behavior.

Russell's brilliant pacing quickly unravels the layers of complexity in the brothers' relationship to each other and to their dominating mother Alice (Leo), who also serves as Micky's manager, as well as to their decent but weak father (Jack McGee) and their seven sisters.

In the DVD documentary "The Warrior's Code: Filming 'The Fighter,' " Russell credits Wahlberg's participation as both producer and actor for the film's realistic look and feel. Wahlberg, like Micky and Dicky, is also one of nine children, and he grew up in a similar Irish Catholic neighborhood (Dorchester) located in nearby Boston. Wahlberg's familiarity with the milieu of Lowell, said Russell, "brought a level of intensity and respect to the set."

Russell is more accurate than boastful when he says in his DVD audio commentary that "The movie is some ways like 'The Godfather' -- it's an intense family melodrama where instead of shooting guns they're just shooting their emotions at each other." It's not surprising, therefore, that the actors with the showiest and most expressive roles have received the most attention and acclaim.

From the aforementioned making-of documentary and a second short documentary featuring the actual people portrayed on screen, we can see how Bale truly embodies Dicky in his portrayal. He gives a riveting, multidimensional performance as a man, once "the pride of Lowell," who turns to crack to ease the pain of failure and then tries to redeem himself. Check out the deleted scenes to see some additional examples of Bale's talent.

In the DVD documentary, Wahlberg discusses the 4 1/2 years he spent in active training for his part before "The Fighter" was finally shot. The film was delayed several times and Wahlberg took on other movie roles over those years, but he remained in fighting shape throughout. His dedication to portraying Micky Ward is evident with every move he makes, inside and outside of the ring.

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