Often a great director finds an actor that manages to get on his wavelength in such a way that it’s impossible to discuss the great works of one without the other. That relationship is usually contentious, but the results tend to be spectacular. And with three films together (and a fourth seemingly on the way), David O. Russell and Mark Wahlberg have achieved one of those partnerships. Say what you will about Wahlberg’s range as an actor, he’s quietly built a career working with people like Paul Thomas Anderson and Martin Scorsese (and M. Night Shyamalan and Peter Jackson), while also doing action films of veritable merit. But his work with Russell is his best. My favorite performance of Wahlberg’s is easily his slightly befuddled fireman Tommy Corn in I <3 Huckabees, but it’s followed closely by his energetic but out-of-his depth Troy Barlow in Three Kings. Wahlberg is an actor of limited range and when he doesn’t have someone to work with comes across as lost or terrible (The Happening), but Russell brings out the best in him.

For The Fighter - based on the true story of the Ward family – Wahlberg is not playing dumb, though he is playing a boxer, which means that his performance hinges on his physicality (which he can do, no problem). It’s a solid role that allows him to be all heart and anchor. He plays Mickey Ward, a fighter on the verge of being washed up. He’s coached by his brother Dicky (Christian Bale), who is a local hero because of a fight with Sugar Ray Leonard – he lives on the reputation that he knocked Ray down. His fame overshadows his brother Mickey, who’s been on a run of fights that keep getting more punishing physically and mentally. This is partly the fault of his mother Alice (Melissa Leo), who has been running the business side of things. Others have tried to manage Mickey, but the whole family suggests anyone else would simply hustle him. Into his life comes Charlene Fleming (Amy Adams), who quietly helps Mickey build the courage to go with new management.

The family is in turmoil. Dicky is a crack addict and often has to be chased down by the family to get him to go to fights. There’s a documentary being made about him that he tells everyone is about his return to the ring, but is really about his fall from grace. And Mickey’s family hates his new girlfriend – even more so when she helps Mickey do his own thing –they think of her as a party girl. But the movie changes its groove when Mickey gets into a big fight, and comes to realize the best advice he got for the fight was from Dicky.

Whether or not you know the real story of Mickey Ward, The Fighter is going to feel familiar for anyone who’s ever watched a movie about a sports figure (real or imagined). To that, at no point while watching the movie did I ever feel like I didn’t know where I was in the narrative – Mickey hits lows, but when there’s that new fight you can tell you’re heading into the third act. But formulas – like remakes – are only as good as their makers, and here director David O. Russell (with writers Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson) makes this a film that is way more than the sum of its parts. There are so many great little touches, and thoughtful characterizations that the film transcends being just another boxing movie.

Christian Bale is already the leading candidate for best supporting actor Oscar, and it’s a great performance. Though he’s in “freak mode” that’s part of his wheelhouse (The Machinist, Rescue Dawn) – he’s skinny and has a bald patch that at times looks like the result of a Jackass prank – Dicky is more than just an assemblage of ticks. And for the first time in a long time he’s actually funny and charming. Yeah, he’s an addict, and there’s a sequence where he gets tempted to go back to his old life, but these never become the weighty, showstopping sequences about the depth of human pain, so much as the filmmakers trusting the audience to understand through modest exposure how bad it got. Bale’s Dicky Ekland is fucked up, but getting high is the only way he can convince himself how great he once was, and his drug use and his family’s coddling makes his life understandable. Russell and Bale finds ways of making the character empathetic.

He’s well matched by his cast, but the stand out for me was Melissa Leo. I’ve watched numerous seasons of her work on Homicide, and recently caught her on Treme. She’s an actress who will show up and be awesome, one of the most reliable of supporting players. But her transformation into Alice Ward was so complete that I didn’t know she played Alice until I saw her name in the end credits. Few performances are so thorough that I forgot who played a part, but this is one of those times where I never saw anyone but the Alice. She is such a strong character that though she is the film’s heavy, you understand her. With a big family of mostly women, they are only acting the only way they know how, which is provincial but not intentionally malicious. She’s a force of nature, a true Mama Grizzly, and Jack McGee’s performance as her husband George is one of the film’s great running jokes. He’s been put upon for years and takes his lumps, or knows when to stay out of it. The family might be seen as comically white trash, but white trash exists, and I believe Russell and company when they said they tuned the family down a couple of notches. Though between this and Ben Affleck’s directorial output, there’s now a genre of films that make Boston look terrible. But it never feels as grossly on the nose or as one dimensional as – say – Hillary Swank’s family in Million Dollar Baby.

Amy Adams has the slightly more showy role as “the hot girl who dresses down for award bait” and this fits into that category of make-up free acting, but Adams is one of the most intuitive starlets in the industry, and though she’s a more violent and together version of the Adrian figure, their relationship and her strength is palpable. Wahlberg is at the center of this, and he’s surrounded by the more high strung characters, but he plays his character as a young brother – conditioned to be quiet and bottled up. Of course you have no movie if he doesn’t find his inner strength, etc. but Wahlberg is both commanding and yet smart enough to not go for histrionics. It’s a good performance because it anchors the film, and it’s a performance that is trusting of the material. He gets to quietly shine.

David O. Russell’s always had a loopy style, he likes to goose scenes by adding a little something extra to the moment so it never plays out exactly as you expect, even if you know where things are going. He applies that sensibility here, and it helps keep the material fresh, even when the moments are familiar. There’s a great scene between Bale and Adams that works because Bale’s got frosting on him, and also because both characters have finally cut through the bullshit. And cutting through the bullshit is a good summation about the film as a whole. If the film has any problems it’s that Russell either didn’t have the time money or inclination to make a great boxing movie – the fights are staged with no great elan. That’s the one thing that may keep the film from being a minor masterpiece. But otherwise, this is the sort of film that is familiar, but also the sort of film that works because it’s too smart to fall into the pitfalls of genre. Like its main character, The Fighter is stealthy and winning.

8.9 out of 10