AFI’s Stealth World Premiere for ‘The Fighter': a Knockout

David O. Russell’s boxing drama is a knockout that will be a serious contender this awards season

David O. Russell's boxing drama "The Fighter" was unveiled Tuesday night as the secret screening at AFI Fest, where proud distributor Paramount orchestrated the film's "stealth" world premiere.

Producer and star Mark Wahlberg introduced the movie by noting that "I haven't seen a crowd like this since I performed with the Funky Bunch."

Indeed, it was a packed house, as more than 100 people were turned away at the door, and other important invitees weren't seated until well after the picture started.

Wahlberg gives a winning performance as "Irish" Micky Ward, a 31-year old fighter from Lowell, Massachusetts who has been taught "everything he knows" by his older, crack-addicted half-brother, Dick "Dickie" Eklund. Dickie is played with smoldering intensity by Christian Bale, who will surely earn his first Oscar nomination for his pitch-perfect performance as a man haunted by the glory days that have passed him by.

Two of last year's Oscar nominees, Amy Adams ("Doubt") and Melissa Leo ("Frozen River"), play Micky's bartender girlfriend, Charlene, and his "momager" (mother/manager), Alice, respectively.

Now, I know this shouldn't matter, but I'm almost certain that this will be the only review you'll read (at least today) written by someone who not only has experience in the boxing ring — I have an 0-1 life-time record after losing my first, last and only "match" at the furious fists of infamous German director Uwe Boll — but I'm also from Massachusetts, having grown up less than 30 miles from Lowell, which is a good place to start with this review.

"The Fighter" does for Lowell what Ben Affleck's "The Town" did for Charlestown earlier this year. It's about a place where family and loyalty actually mean something, and sometimes different things, too.

Variety's Stuart Oldham tweeted after the screening that "'The Fighter' is all about the Wards, not the boxing," which I completely agree with, since the movie's primary concern is the relationship between Micky and Dickie, the brother he's always idolized but can't afford to wait around for any longer. This is a relatively small movie, comparative in scope to, pardon the lazy comparison, Darren Aronofsky's similarly-themed "The Wrestler."

The screenplay, credited to Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson, pulls off a delicate balancing act of good, old-fashioned sports drama and gritty character study.

Micky's main conflict is that his family is holding back his career. They're not getting him the fights he needs to win in order to get a title shot, and the when they do get him a fight, they put their own greed ahead his health. He's the family's gravy train and while he wants to provide for them, he's also the one taking all the risk.

Alice doesn't think twice about sending him into the ring to fight a guy who is 20 lbs. heavier than him, she just knows that if he doesn't fight, he doesn't get paid.

Dickie is his trainer but he's always late to their sparring sessions because he's high on drugs, and can't even get himself together on fight nights. Other promoters are willing to pay Micky to train year-round so he can eventually work his way up to a title fight, but in order to do so, he'll have to turn his back on his brother, the only trainer he's ever known.

The supporting characters play a major presence in "The Fighter," from Jack McGee ("Rescue Me") as Micky's father to the seven (I think) perfectly-cast actresses who play his legion of big-haired sisters. Special praise is reserved for Micky's reserve trainer Mickey O'Keefe, who plays himself in the film. It's natural, lived-in performances like his that made me forget I was in a movie theater and feel like I was just hanging out in a sweaty gym in Lowell.

One of the real surprises in "The Fighter" is Adams' feisty performance as Charlene, who is much more than just a throwaway love interest. In fact, I loved what Russell did with her character, although she does become a bit more conventional in the last act, as Russell proves less interested in Micky's romantic life than his complicated, love/hate relationship with his brother, who Micky credits with his unlikely success.

Hoyte Van Hoytema's cinematography and Pamela Martin's editing are both excellent, although one important element that is noticeably absent is a memorable score. "The Fighter" features original music from Michael Brown, but I can only remember the film's odd assortment of pop songs, some of which are used several times during the boxing scenes.

Speaking of those, you're probably wondering how Russell handles the action between the ropes. Well, his work in the ring doesn't begin to rival Martin Scorsese's in "Raging Bull," or even Ron Howard's in "Cinderella Man," but it is nonetheless unique and effective as a result of the director's decision to shoot the fights on video, a much more intimate format that makes the audience feel as if they're sitting ringside right next to Dickie's arch-nemesis Sugar Ray Robinson.

As far as "The Fighter's" awards potential is concerned, Best Picture is a more a probability than a possibility now that most of the contenders have been screened for critics. Paramount is still testing everyone's patience by holding "True Grit" like a carrot over critics' heads, but give the studio credit for a shrewd marketing move with its AFI surprise.

Best Actor is, to be perfectly honest, going to be difficult for Wahlberg, but I wouldn't count him out just yet, as I expect the film to be warmly embraced by both critics and audiences alike. Like I said, it's not a showy role for Wahlberg, and some of my colleagues argued last night that Bale was more of a co-lead, but Wahlberg was the 4th or 5th "Departed" cast member who I thought should've been nominated for an Oscar and yet his performance was the only one recognized by the Academy, so who knows?

While Wahlberg may not give a "great, iconic screen performance," as former Variety critic Todd McCarthy wrote of Mickey Rourke's work in "The Wrestler," his years of training and preparation for the role result in a surprisingly quiet and restrained performance that ranks amongst the best of Wahlberg's career (I'm tempted to call it his best but "Boogie Nights" is pretty epic). Aside from when he's boxing, there are really only two scenes where you actually see Micky flip his switch and lose his cool (both involving his brother).

Rather than dial it up, Wahlberg really lets Bale and Leo steal the show in juicy supporting roles that just about any actor would kill for. I'll admit, the scene that got me to start tearing up was when Alice and her screw-up of a son burst into song while sitting in a car in one of the movie's most moving moments. In that moment, Leo's pursed lips that seem permanently fixed around a cigarette curl into a smile that illuminates her character in a way that no piece of dialogue could.

Bale is unquestionably the front-runner for Best Supporting Actor, and I imagine he'll be accepting plenty of critics' awards over the next few months. The actor's physical transformation is simply startling, and it's hard to believe this is the same guy who will play Batman in "The Dark Knight Rises."

They filmmakers have taken back the actor's hairline, made his teeth a mess and given him a bald spot that Dickie isn't the least bit self-conscious about. Bale has done the chameleon-thing before in "The Machinist" and "Rescue Dawn," but here, it's his cracked-out body language, wide-eyed, goofy smile and motor mouth that say all we really need to know about Dickie. I'll leave additional hyperbole to others, but it really is Bale's most impressive performance in a career littered with them.

In a perfect world, Leo and Adams would both be nominated for Best Supporting Actress, and it will be interesting to see whose campaign gains the most awards traction this season, because while Leo will be the performance that women leave talking about, Adams' continually strong work can't be denied. I really don't think that many actresses could get as much out of that role as she did.

Finally, another really interesting thing to keep an eye on during awards season is the fact that "The Fighter" boasts a bunch of producers including "The King's Speech" producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein and "Black Swan" director Darren Aronofsky, who will likely be competing against themselves with "The Fighter," which Paramount will release on Dec. 10.

It sounds corny but "The Fighter" really is a knockout of a movie, and I suspect the undeniable crowd-pleaser will be a huge hit with audiences. The film represents Russell's best work to date, and as such, "The Fighter" has to be considered a serious contender for Hollywood's top prize when March 7 rolls around.