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'The Fighter' packs a wallop

Mark Wahlberg stars as

Mark Wahlberg stars as "Irish" Micky Ward in the biopic "The Fighter." Credit: AP

Sorrow, triumph and Important Historical Moments - that's what we expect from a biopic. "The Fighter," however, has something better: a rollicking, rowdy, irreverent sense of humor.

That crucial nutrient has been lacking in ossified biopics like "Ray" and "Amelia," but not in "The Fighter." Based on the partnership of junior welterweight "Irish" Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his drug-addicted half-brother, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), the film is no museum piece. Thanks partly to director David O. Russell's rock-and-roll energy, it feels joyously and fully alive.

Ward and Ecklund are in fact still living; their story is almost as recent as the birth of Facebook. Ward is known for his memorably fierce fights against Arturo Gatti in the early 2000s, although "The Fighter" ends before they begin. This is an origin story, about a working-class palooka from Lowell, Mass., and the family that nearly traps him there.

The laughs come mainly from Eklund, which might seem odd: He's a gaunt ghost who traded his own boxing career for a crack pipe. But Bale, in a magnificent performance, turns Eklund into a charismatic rogue, irresistible even when pimping his girlfriend and robbing her johns. Ecklund is the film's secret protagonist, and Wahlberg graciously gives his co-star all the room he needs.

Rounding out the excellent cast are Melissa Leo as Dicky's enabling mother and Amy Adams as Micky's tough-love girlfriend. These actors make even the occasional caricature seem fresh: Who knew wives still threw frying pans? What "The Fighter" lacks in cinematic elegance, it makes up for with - you guessed it - heart.

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