Shining costar portrayals, like that of Christian Bale, nearly outdo Mark Wahlberg’s performance of underdog punching bag turned prize fighter.[/media-credit]

When it comes to boxing, a true contender is judged by his performance inside the ring. In movies, however, it’s what happens once the fighter steps off the canvas that can make or break the film.

It’s watching Rocky overcome adversity as he sprints up the stone steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s Jake LaMotta’s downward spiral of rage and jealousy in “Raging Bull.” It’s not just spectacular athletic feats that draw audiences to the theater – they have ESPN for that – it’s that something extra that’s going to keep them captivated on the edge of their seats.

“The Fighter” packs that extra poignant punch thanks to the stellar cast that brings the true story of “Irish” Micky Ward to life.

For a while, though, it looked like the story was never going to make it to the silver screen. Originally green-lit with director Darren Aronofsky (“The Wrestler”) set to helm, the film looked to be headed to development hell after Aronofsky dropped out to work on another project. Consequently, Mark Wahlberg, who produces and stars in the film, turned to past collaborator and friend David O. Russell (“I ” Huckabees”) to direct, bringing a level of humor and emotion to a storyline that is rather tragic at times.

Set in the city of Lowell, Mass., the film follows Ward (Wahlberg, “The Other Guys”), a down-and-out boxer who is more of a punch bag in the ring than a true contender, as he attempts to make one last shot at an against-all-odds title amidst the family turmoil surrounding his comeback bid.

Russell understands the heart of this story is Micky’s interactions with those around him, and, therefore, makes the wise decision to focus in on these relationships, especially that of Micky and his half-brother Dickie Eklund, a former fighter whose career ended prematurely due to a crippling crack addiction.

But the real credit for the dynamic connection that occurs onscreen between Micky and Dickie goes to Christian Bale (“Public Enemies”) for his go-for-broke portrayal of Dickie. Although shocking physical transformations are nothing new for Bale (see “The Machinist” or “Rescue Dawn”), his performance goes above and beyond dropping to near skeletal form and shaving a bald patch on his head. In realistically embodying the drug-addled Dickie, Bale gives a riveting performance that’s arguably his best to date and should earn him a well-deserved first Oscar nod.

Past Academy Award nominees Melissa Leo (“Conviction”) and Amy Adams (“Leap Year”) also both turn in quality performances of their own as the leading ladies in Micky’s life. Further proof that she is one of today’s best character actors, Leo’s portrayal of Micky’s mother, Alice Ward, is engagingly villainous at times as she fights for what she believes to be her kids’ best interests. The most surprising, though, is Adams who distances herself from her usual cheerful characters to play Charlene, Micky’s girlfriend and future wife, with a compelling concoction of tough-girl bitchiness and vulnerable emotion.

It’s not often that the film’s lead has to fight for an audience’s attention, but with such a strong supporting cast, Wahlberg’s performance isn’t quite as unforgettable as those of his costars. That’s not to say Wahlberg doesn’t hold his own playing the underdog sports figure once again – he stepped into the cleats of everyman Vince Papale in 2006 for the run of the mill Disney football biopic “Invincible.” Unfortunately, Wahlberg falls victim to a screenplay that fails to truly flesh out his character with gripping dialogue or back-story.

In fact, Wahlberg’s most memorable scenes occur once he steps onto the canvas. Although the film is at its best outside the ring, the boxing sequences are just as thrilling in their own right. Almost unconventional and how conventionally they are done, Russell shot the matches in a telecast style, sacrificing artsy camerawork for more down-to-earth, carnal fight scenes. Throw in some slow-motion punches with airborne blood, sweat and spit and timely rock anthems and you have some of the best boxing to hit the big screen.

Although the film does suffer the typical sports biopic pitfalls of a storyline that drags at times and a predictable ending – albeit inspiring nonetheless – it will no doubt keep audiences entertained throughout. In the end, while it doesn’t quite match up to Oscar stalwarts like “Rocky,” “Raging Bull,” or “Million Dollar Baby,” “The Fighter” can certainly go the distance against any of these classics with a dominant one-two punch of directing and acting.

4 out of 5 stars