Wrestlers two years ago, boxers this: it would seem the movies are more convinced than ever that what the public needs to see right now are the travails of born fighters coming to transcend their reduced economic circumstances. In years to come, these intensely choreographed bobs, weaves and pirouettes out of the gutter may be seen much as the Gold Diggers musicals were during the Depression (or, indeed, as the Rocky movies were during the no less depressed 1980s) - as energetic solace, a most bodily form of escapism. For all its considerable merits as entertainment, I do just wonder if The Fighter - like The Wrestler before it, made in a vacuum by a filmmaker who doesn't really have to wonder where his next paycheque will be coming from - recognises quite how hard even the toughest of life's scrappers has right now.
But enough carping. David O. Russell's new film recounts the true story of "Irish" Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a mid-1990s world welterweight champion hailing from blue-collar Lowell, Massachusetts. Ward's trainer was his own brother Dicky, a former contender himself who once put up a good show in the ring against no less a figure than Sugar Ray Leonard, before descending into boredom, listlessness and crack addiction; he's played by a typically gaunt Christian Bale as an example of exactly the kind the squandered talent Micky risks becoming.
Russell's previous films never shied away from the physical - think of the rugged adventure of Three Kings (again with Wahlberg), or even Wahlberg being smacked around the face with a spacehopper in the otherwise determinedly cerebral I Heart Huckabees - but The Fighter also folds in the familial concerns of the director's earlier (dark) comedies Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster. The bouts here are granted less narrative significance than what these two men return to, battered and bruised - the family ties that bind not just these pugilists' hands, but their careers, their lives. The putative champion is both supported and held back by his extended clan, literally so when Dicky gets himself involved in a brawl with police one night, and - in rushing to his brother's defence - Micky shatters his fist.
What the film takes from Ben Affleck's recent Boston pictures (Gone Baby Gone, The Town) is the importance of casting people who look as though they might actually have worked a day or two in their lives: a commitment to the specifics of class, and to the resentments these can provoke, that's still a rarity in American cinema. When Micky takes up with local bartender Charlene (Amy Adams), his sisters dismiss her as a skank, even as they insist she "thinks she's too good for the rest of us, just 'cos she went to college".
Even the straggles in the film's four-man screenplay - like the documentary crew who drift in and out of the first half - serve to go somewhere, in this case towards a mid-movie twist of sorts: the crew in question is following not Micky, but Dicky, and not an ageing fighter's return to glory but a washed-up has-been navigating the perils of drug addiction. What The Fighter does best is taking a story you probably won't have heard before and setting it out in the form of scenes you haven't quite seen in a fight movie, or indeed an Oscar-nominated biopic: when the documentary finally airs, Russell cuts between the reactions of Micky, looking on with acute embarrassment, his family, dismayed and distraught, and Dicky, now in jail, whose peacocking before his fellow inmates turns to gradual, regretful realisation of all the bad choices he's made.
For a film ostensibly about men, and the business of men being men - the fight game, in so many words - what's truly surprising and heartening is how much room Russell finds for strong women along the way. Melissa Leo's Ma Ward presides over a parlourful of daughters forever arranging themselves into factions, and one of The Fighter's leftfield achievements is in turning cramped kitchens and sitting rooms into venues for conflict every bit as compelling as casinos in Atlantic City. Welcome, too, is Amy Adams as the kind of tough yet supportive girlfriend any sane contender would want at his side, and not just because she happens to be an ex-high jumper with a shock of fire-red hair.
The second half starts to settle into a familiar comeback arc - his fist healed, Micky begins training again - yet even here Russell holds dear to some cherishably unpredictable rhythms, cutting to the business end of the boxing itself, rather than going through the standard rigmarole of setting up each fight as its own individual drama, all the while encouraging his performers to spar and figure out what each scene is about for themselves: Micky's shot at the world title is put on hold while the family deals with the massive disruption of Dicky's return. If it's ultimately no more than a roistering couple of hours in the dark - a small story, told well - The Fighter truly holds its own as a model of creative integrity: it's what happens when you stick good, committed actors in the ring under the watchful eye of a fine and challenging director.
The Fighter opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.