There's a something about boxing pictures; a certain movieish quality to them that's not equaled by any of the more popular sports (has there ever been a truly great football film? or hockey story? Only baseball has come anywhere close to replicating the cinematic durability of boxing, and then typically as the background to a story rather than as the centerpiece). It is, I think, that boxing is relatively unique in being a solo sport. A story about a football team has no real business being about one protagonist; while a boxing story can be and virtually always is about the raw physicality of one man (or the occasional, vanishingly rare woman), confronting his own fear and the body and blood of other men. It is the only personal sport, that is, which makes it better suited to conventional drama - or unconventional drama, for that matter.

Perversely, then, the core of The Fighter, the latest in the indefatigable tradition of boxing movies, lies in its treatment of the titular character as the center of a domestic drama, not a glamourous loner proving himself in the most grueling physical combat. In a fact-based story, Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg) is the younger half-brother of an ex-boxer and present crackhead, Dicky Ecklund (Christian Bale), who has spent the last several years molding the younger man into the top-notch fighter that he might have been himself, a lifetime ago. As a result, Mickey is perpetually stuck in his brother's sphere of influence, and moved like a chess piece by the boys' exuberantly shrewish mother, Alice Ward (Melissa Leo).

Along the way, Mickey sort of falls in love with a bartender, Charlene Fleming (Amy Adams), and for perhaps the first time in a life of being used as the vessel for his family's ambition, realises that he might be better able to succeed and make a name for himself without them. Thus begins the showdown between Charlene on the one side, aided limply by Mickey's dad and Alice's current husband, George (Jack McGee), and the grim army of Alice and her terrifyingly large brood of harpy daughters, with Dicky as their standard.

Though, it's still a boxing movie, and that means that Mickey's subsequent rise to become a champion fighter (not a spoiler: it's a ferchrissake biopic) is at treated with much attention, though primarily as it provides the skeleton for the accompanying family drama.

Wahlberg has been struggling to get this story told since 2005, and in the process the focus drifted from a straightforward "underdog boxer makes good" story in the initial draft by Eric Johnson and Paul Tamasy, towards a story of redemption and the tortured bonds of brotherhood as it underwent re-writes by an uncredited Lewis Colick and another by equally-uncredited Paul Attansio, before the final version by Scott Silver was nailed down as the right direction for the story; but the fingerprints of too much uncertainty and too many cooks are evident throughout every step of the screenplay, which isn't spotty or bad so much as it is desperately conventional: sure, it's a conventional genre,* but there's a fine line between courting clichΓ© because it is the right thing to, and because it is the most convenient way out of Development Hell.

Thus it falls rather hard upon the shoulders of director David O. Russell - returning to the game after six full years of silence, and that only after the project lost earlier attached directors due to its slow trip from script to script - to drag out whatever interesting things are ever going come of The Fighter, and this he does with significant skill. I will admit to never having really "gotten" Russell before (oh, I liked all of his films, more or less, but he's mostly struck me as a clever more than ingenious) and I don't know if I "get" him now: The Fighter really doesn't seem to be coming from the same place as I β™₯ Huckabees, any more than that film came from the same place as Three Kings or Spanking the Monkey. But "getting" him is a different thing than recognising that he's done a pretty great job of directing a workaday scenario with energy enough to give that scenario a flush of life it doesn't inherently possess or deserve. Using a loose, casual visual style he and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema capture the real-life Lowell, MA with impressive precision that never feels ethnographic: the details of the town and life there are presented from the inside out, essentially, and although this approach sometimes loses the viewer in a thicket of dense localism, on the whole it's one of 2010's best cinematic evocations of place. Adding to the fun, Dicky is being followed by a documentary crew, and the transition from what Russell's camera sees to what the documentarians see is an interesting commentary on the different means through which fiction and nonfiction films attempt to describe reality using the reality-altering means of the movie camera

He also films the boxing matches in the customary post-Raging Bull fashion: three big sequences, shot in three different styles. It could be more effective in some ways - the shift to lower-resolution video for the fights is a grabby trick, but not one that makes too much sense, even knowing that the director made the choice to evoke early-'90s TV broadcasts of boxing - but the hectic pace and brutal fleshiness is there (owing in large part to Whalberg's enthusiasm for actually taking the punches he appears to take). When it needs to be, it's punishing - the most important thing for any boxing movie to be.

And of course, as everybody surely has heard, Russell pulls some very fine performances out of a solid cast, though I am uncertain in this regard that the film is well-served by the exact blend of acting going on. Essentially, the two camps in the drama are divided into two camps of characterisation as well, and thus we have Wahlberg and Adams in a low-key, laid back mode, opposed to Bale and Leo and the clutch of actresses playing the insane sisters all playing as Big and Actorly as they can manage. Bale once again trots out his favorite habit of losing dangerous amounts of weight in between Batman pictures, playing a discomfitingly physical version of crack addiction, and later the worn-out aftermath of crack rehab; and Leo, playing an intensely streamlined version of the woman she's perfected over the years - a white trash harridan queen, imperious and awful in the same breath without noticing or caring to notice the conflict within her - does an amazing job at suggesting rather than insisting upon the odd, bent motherly that leaves her to transparently prefer her most fucked-up child Dicky, while manipulating Mickey not out of malice but because that's what she perceives motherhood to be. The pair make a wildly credible mother/son team, adopting the same mannerisms and speech patterns; they are stunningly magnetic; and yet the film can barely survive them. Nothing else about the movie is so hugely theatrical, and they both imbalance it - if we can sometimes speak of a "generous" performance, in which the actor gives back to his or her castmates, building them up to their best, Leo and Bale especially are, in The Fighter, selfish performers, and it's both thrilling and off-putting by turns.

Wahlberg, in the meanwhile, has a hard time holding the screen, giving a quiet performance that fits the character - Mickey is presented throughout as reactive and reserved, unwilling and probably trained to be unable to put himself out there. It's the right performance for the part - Russell and Wahlberg make a great team as always - but it's not a performance that can withstand the blaze of Bale drawing all the attention. There are two movies warring in The Fighter, the Dicky movie of melodrama and crazy energy, and the Mickey movie of stilted emotion and subdued yearning, and they do not complement each other as well as they ought to; The Fighter does not gain tension from the conflict, but murkiness.

Adams, for her part, gives a technically proficient performance, entirely believable and effective, except for the problem that Amy Adams has the role. Try as we might, there's no denying that star presence is a thing that happens, and even if she's not a huge star yet, Adams has exactly the right kind of charisma. In that light, her performance in The Fighter - a performance that does everything right! - plays as desperately calculated, a Darker Edgier Amy Adams for the critics to gnaw on. See Amy Adams cuss! See Amy Adams wearing a transparent brassiere! Thrill as the cutie pie becomes a working class pragmatist! But I could never stop being aware it was Amy Adams.

I've come down harsher on The Fighter than I meant to: it's a film I like a lot in many particulars, it just leaves me a little cold in how it draws them all together, and in the overarching perfunctory feel to the story. Like its protagonist, it's too inarticulate for its own good, but can reach moments of grandeur when everything aligns just so. Let us perhaps say that it wins by a technical knockout.