Less a boxing drama than a drama with some boxing in it, "The Fighter" turns Bale loose in a supporting role that dominates director David O. Russell's film, much as Heath Ledger's Joker took over "The Dark Knight" from its hero, Bale's Batman.
Not that Wahlberg comes up short in any way as real-life boxer Micky Ward, who rose from his blue-collar roots and overcame ugly squabbling with his relations to earn a title shot in 2000, when he was in his mid-30s.
Also a producer on the film who trained for years to play Ward, Wahlberg is excellent. It's just that Bale is truly extraordinary as Ward's older half-brother, Dicky Eklund, a flamboyant but self-destructive former boxer who trains his sibling to climb to heights he never reached himself as his life unraveled amid crack addiction.
Gaunt, wiry, always moving, always talking, Bale casts aside the stoicism of so many of his roles and becomes a lovable wreck. We've always known Bale can play menacing and mean, and those qualities in Dicky are always apparent. But Bale's Dicky also is a joyous figure, hilarious, outrageous, bigheaded yet big-hearted, a self-centered man so sure of his own worth that he's capable of surprising generosity toward others.
As with Ledger's Joker, it's the stuff that Academy Awards wins are made of.
Written by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson, the film itself is a strange stew, a raw, genuine portrait of working-class stiffs one moment, a shrill-bordering-on-caricatured comedy of family discord and vulgar people the next.
Melissa Leo as Micky and Dicky's bleach-blond, boozy, lovingly domineering mother, Alice Ward, and Amy Adams as Micky's steely girlfriend, Charlene, are terrific. But the filmmakers continually hurl Micky and Dicky's half-dozen sisters and half-sisters into the fray like a pack of harpies.
They can be hysterically funny, fighting verbally and even physically with Charlene, the interloper threatening to yank Micky out of the matriarchy of their family circle. Yet their tabloid-TV behavior is so obnoxiously at odds with the drama surrounding the main characters that the female siblings at times seem to be there more for cheap comic effect than anything else.
Russell is skilled at mixing intense drama and humor, as he did on "Three Kings," which also co-starred Wahlberg. He seems to revel too much in the absurdities of Micky and Dicky's family here, though, and it leaves "The Fighter" a little wobbly on its dramatic legs.
The boxing matches are fierce but mostly brief, Russell compacting long fights into a few choice skirmishes. The director presents a bruising, unsentimental closeup of ringside action, without the artistic flourishes of many boxing flicks.
The film is at its best focusing on Micky, Dicky and Alice, the mom who managed both their careers and is flabbergasted when Micky strikes out on his own, declaring that his family has not only held him back, but also led him into danger in the ring.
The split between half-brothers provides fine drama, but the soul of "The Fighter" comes from the fierce affection and devotion these two wildly different men hold for each other even when estranged.
Wahlberg's Micky is a quiet, disciplined, workmanlike boxer who keeps slogging on even as it seems his life and his chances are slipping away (and Wahlberg, with a physique simply ripped from his years of training, looks as though he belongs in the ring).
Dicky is a tragic figure, a guy who had his shot, against Sugar Ray Leonard in the late 1970s, and can't stop reminding people of it. His downward spiral includes a prison term for a spate of crimes, and Bale wrings a remarkable range of emotion from the man - hurt, resentment, shame, guilt - even when Dicky is at his most blustering.
Along with Leonard, who appears briefly as himself, Lowell, Mass., police officer Mickey O'Keefe, who helped train Ward, also plays himself, doing as well as any Hollywood character actor might while adding a nice touch of authenticity.
Like Bale, Wahlberg, Adams and particularly Leo have strong Oscar prospects. Leo, a best-actress nominee for 2008's "Frozen River," could easily walk off with the supporting-actress prize, her Alice a wonderful gust of grasping, strangling maternalism.
Bale has talked about envying Ledger a bit on the set of "The Dark Knight," watching his co-star cut loose as the Joker while he had to remain rigid as the tightly wound Batman. Two years after Ledger's posthumous supporting-actor win at the Oscars, Bale might take home the same honor, for inhabiting a role with a different but equally ferocious sort of abandon.
"The Fighter," a Paramount release, is rated R for language throughout, drug content, some violence and sexuality. Running time: 116 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G - General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG - Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 - Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R - Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 - No one under 17 admitted.