"I'm going to Hollywood!" hollers a gaunt crackhead strutting through the aisles of a packed, cheering prison cafeteria. The crackhead is Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), former middling pro boxer and current top-notch felon, and the prisoners are gathered to watch an HBO documentary about his big "comeback" to the boxing ring. Dicky grandstands and preens with unself-conscious bravado, as though he genuinely thinks that at any moment Ryan Seacrest might pop out from behind a stainless steel toilet and ask who he is wearing (ummm, State of Massachusetts Bloodstain-Resistant Jumpsuit Couture?). Of course, the documentary—which serves as a framing device for the first half of The Fighter—doesn't turn out quite how Dicky expects, but the organic reveal is so satisfying that I'll just leave it there.
Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) has spent his first 30 years in big brother Dicky's self-aggrandizing, bullshitty shadow, and it's finally—as the film opens—threatening to take him down for good. Micky is "the fighter" of the title, but he's not much of a fighter at all—he's a doormat, trampled into submission by Dicky, seven hissing harpy sisters, and a domineering, guilt-ladling, smoke-stained mother to rival Livia Soprano (seriously, the nine of them together are like the fucking Hydra of northern Massachusetts). Micky could be a real boxing talent—he could fulfill the dream that Dicky pawned for delicious crack—but he doesn't want to leave Lowell, leave "the family." Sure. Who wouldn't want to wake up every day to the dulcet tones of "WHEEEAHD YOO FOOOHKIN PAAAAHK THE CAAA-AAAAHHHHH?"
The Fighter feels like it's barreling toward full-on Greek tragedy, and it has its painful patches, but ultimately—forgive me—the film pulls a lot of punches. This is a piece of entertainment, after all; it's not trying to ruin your day. And it's great entertainment. Melissa Leo (as the mother) is a magnificent, Oscar-worthy villain; there are two (as in, more than one!) redemption montages; boxing is EXCITING; plus I bet you never knew how funny it is to watch a crackhead try and explain pyramid schemes to a family of Cambodian immigrants. "He thinks you think Cambodian people are stupid." "No! White people do this to other white people!" Oh, and it's based on a true story. Congratulations, Dicky, you made it to Hollywood.