Review: The Fighter

brent johnson’s oscar series kicks off with his look at The Fighter

Often, the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor goes to a subtle performance. One that complements a film — intricate but sturdy, with one killer scene that makes the role dazzle enough to get noticed. Think Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting. Or Tim Robbins in Mystic River.

But not recently.

The last two years, the statue has gone to spectacles of acting — performances that bubble with so much energy, they may as well be nominated in the Lead Actor category. In 2008, it was The Dark Knight’s Heath Ledger, who played The Joker as a maniacal, ventriloquist-voiced clown. In 2009, it was Inglourious Basterds’ Christoph Waltz, who not only delivered lines in four languages, but also managed to make evil charming as the Nazi Col. Hans Landa.

This year, the streak may very well continue — with a charismatic yet jittery boxer-turned-junkie.

The Fighter changed my opinion of Christian Bale. I didn’t care that he became a tabloid punchline for his enraged rant on the Terminator: Salvation set. I just wasn’t enthralled by his acting.

Entertainment Weekly recently dubbed him one of the most famous actors to have never received an Oscar nomination. Personally, I wouldn’t have even thought of picking him. Admittedly, I had never seen him in The Machinist, a supposedly mesmerizing role in which he shed dozens of pounds. But I saw him as Batman and I saw him in Public Enemies. Both times, he brooded a lot and spoke in a deep voice. Bra-vo.

But in David O. Russell’s new true-story boxing flick, Bale buzzes on film. He plays Dicky Ecklund, a former talk-of-the-small-town fighter from suburban Boston who blew his chance at stardom by getting wrapped up in a crack house. Now, when he’s not lighting up, he gives training lessons to his promising younger brother, Micky (Mark Wahlberg).

Bale doesn’t just steal his scenes. He dominates them. He mugs for the camera like a vaudeville comic unaware that his jokes are stale. He speaks with sleazy charm and moves with slinky bravado — the kind of aloof confidence that reminded me of the zoot-suited weasels from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? And he did something Oscar often takes notice of: He stripped away his matinee looks for the role, dropping 30 pounds and sporting a bald spot and rotting teeth.

But it’s hardly the only captivating performance in The Fighter. It’s Wahlberg who actually sizzles the least, playing the lead role quietly. But that’s the point. Micky’s world is sinking because of the dysfunctional characters who surround him. If it’s not his brother, it’s his mother (Melissa Leo), who selfishly steers her son’s career in between cigarettes and emotional outbursts. She lords over her children by inducing their guilt — not only Dicky and Micky, but seven daughters whose Aquanet hairstyles lead you to believe they don’t own a mirror, or don’t know how to use one. Leo, an Oscar nominee two years ago for Frozen River, is sure to snag another nod.

She could end up facing co-star Amy Adams, who’s likely to end up in the Best Supporting Actress category for the third time. Adams is plucky — not her usual perky — as the one piece of sanity in Micky’s life: a college-dropout barmaid who talks the truth, and throws a mean punch of her own.

The film as a whole has been a surprise contender in the Oscar race. It’s likely to land one of the 10 Best Picture slots and the first-ever nod for Russell, director of the great Three Kings. Russell tells the story without leaning too heavily on the melodrama frequently found in sports movies. Instead, he’s crafted a film that speaks both to sports fans looking for underdog glory and to those smothered by overbearing families.

But more than anything, it brims with quality acting.