If anyone had heard of “Irish” Micky Ward before late 2010, it was for one reason — three epic fights in the early 2000s with Arturo “Thunder” Gatti. Seven years older than Gatti — and laden with a day job as a street paver to make ends meet — Ward was always an unstoppable force in the ring: Two fights of the unforgettable Gatti/Ward trilogy were named “Fight of the Year” by Ring Magazine.

“The Fighter”

At Quality 16 and Rave
Paramount

So is it odd, then, that “The Fighter” — a movie about Ward’s rise from everyman to world boxing champion — does not feature those epic bouts with Gatti at all?

Perhaps, but that keeps with the most important principal for a successful biopic: The fame that followed may have inspired the film, but that isn’t the most inspiring part of the story. Ward’s story may have ended up on ESPN’s fight night, but, stripped down to its touching core, it’s really a tale of a working man, his poor family, his defeated brother and his unstoppable will to overcome all those odds.

Director David O. Russell (“Three Kings”) allows that story to play itself out with the attention it deserves. Ward’s (Mark Wahlberg, “The Other Guys”) boxing matches are here too, of course, but the focus is on all the life lived between those fights, not on the few moments in the ring that fans often think define a fighter.

Much more crucial to Ward’s rise, his struggles and his ultimate triumph are Lowell, Mass., the town he grew up in (depicted here as the gritty, rundown ghost of industrial urban America), Charlene, the girl he fought for (Amy Adams, “Julie and Julia”) and Dicky Eklund, the washed-up brother who trained him (Christian Bale, “The Dark Knight”).

The result of the humanistic focus is a remarkably genuine film that rises well beyond its clichéd genre and into the territory of serious Best Picture contenders.

Wahlberg brings credibility to the part of working-class laborer-slash-boxer better than any other actor today possibly could. Even nearing 40, he still has the physique of a legitimate boxer. And, a product of the mean streets of Dorchester himself, Wahlberg needs no coaching or method training for this role — he was literally born into it.

The exact opposite can be said of his co-star Bale: In playing Eklund, the crack-addicted “Pride of Lowell,” Bale is a long way from home (Haverfordwest in Pembrokshire, Wales, to be exact). But, as well documented from his dramatic weight loss for “The Machinist,” Bale takes the authenticity of his art very seriously. Here, he is considerably slimmed down from his bulky Bruce Wayne physique and sports a nearly impeccable Boston accent — the latest in a long line of phonetic marvels from a man who in real life sounds very, very British.

Bale will likely snag an Oscar for his convincing transformation, but credit must also go to Russell, Wahlberg, Adams and the supporting cast for presenting a holistically genuine canvas. Ward’s tale is a classic American underdog story, but it hasn’t felt this fresh and true in years.

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