THE FIGHTER Marky Mark and the Pugilist Bunch.

BOXING IS AS MUCH a test of inner strength and determination as it is a punching contest. That makes the sport a near perfect metaphor for the get-knocked-down-and-pull-yourself-off-the-canvas mentality that Americans love to believe in—and that Hollywood loves to exploit. And sometimes they exploit it brilliantly: Raging Bull, Rocky, The Great White Hope, The Set-Up—all films whose climactic fight scenes reflect the battle raging within the soul of the fighter.

Director David O. Russell's The Fighter falls somewhat short of that list—but not embarrassingly so. It's a prequel of sorts, documenting the early years of junior welterweight "Irish" Mickey Ward who eventually went on to wage some truly legendary and bloody battles against Arturo Gatti in the early 2000s. At the film's onset, Mark Wahlberg's Mickey languishes in the shadows of his crackhead brother (Christian Bale)—whose brief brush with Sugar Ray Leonard made him a local boxing legend—and his fame-seeking mother (Melissa Leo). Even after shaking off his sycophantic family, Mickey's new management and girlfriend (Amy Adams) threaten to pull him down into a similar morass. The intention—obviously—is for Mickey to eventually become his own fighter, making his own decisions, winning his own battles.

What hobbles the film is, surprisingly, its own characters. Mickey's brother—played by an almost unrecognizable Bale—is the true magnet of this film, often making Wahlberg disappear into the scenery. Likewise, Leo's desperate portrayal of Mickey's mother, and Adams' equally desperate (in a different way) girlfriend make Mickey himself a little... well, superfluous. (It doesn't help that the one-note Wahlberg is totally outperformed by the amazing supporting cast.)

Of course, the climactic fight scene is just as rousing as the Hollywood manipulation machine intended. But when the true stars of the movie (Bale, Leo, Adams) are left sitting outside the ring—the body that hits the canvas makes a pretty hollow sound.