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‘The Fighter’ shows struggles of addiction, dysfunction

THERE ARE MANY one-way tickets to Palookaville, but nothing will get you there faster or more directly than drugs.

THERE ARE MANY one-way tickets to Palookaville, but nothing will get you there faster or more directly than drugs.

So we learn in "The Fighter," a putative boxing movie that deepens into a engrossingly strange, tragicomic portrait of addiction and its repercussions.

The marketing campaign plays down the drug angle, and I can't imagine why. Boxing, to crib again from David Mamet, is "as dead as Woodrow Wilson." Addiction, on the other hand, is on cable seven nights a week. Shows like "Intervention" give us a view into the kind of strife that drug addiction causes in American families of every stripe.

"The Fighter" takes that arc and applies it to the wonderfully strange-but-true story of fighter "Irish" Micky Ward, a distant boxing-movie relative to Terry Malloy in that he's supposed to be somebody, and he's supposed to get help from his brother, who's holding him back.

Christian Bale is Dicky Eklund, Micky's half-brother in a large, sprawling Lowell, Mass., family that counts all half and stepsiblings as immediate blood kin, and counts family bonds as unbreakable, under any circumstance.

Dicky was himself a talented former boxer, but he couldn't beat Sugar Ray Leonard, and he can't beat crack. Micky has the talent, the drive, the ambition, the chin - everything but the support he needs from his family. Dicky is often a no-show as trainer, and Micky's manager-mom (Melissa Leo) is willfully blind to it.

The result: She matches Micky against fighters he cannot beat, and in any case, Micky is poorly prepared by his absentee brother.

Filtered through the world of boxing, it's a convincing portrait of addiction/dysfunction. But not a tragic one. This drama is strangely, bravely presented by David O. Russell as a near-comedy.

The movie finds humor, for instance, in the family's decision to match Micky at the last minute against a replacement fighter whom Dicky (who needs the purse money for crack) insists "just got off the couch." It's a vivid sequence and leads to one of the choicest boxing-scene lines I've ever heard.

Micky finds himself in the ring with a buff brawler who outweighs him by some 20 pounds (this actually happened) and takes a terrific beating. As handled by Russell, the scene gets laughs, but it also makes a point, spelling out in bold the brutal toll that addiction takes on family bystanders.

That's how the brothers enter Palookaville, but how do they get out? Enter Amy Adams, enjoyably down-market as Micky's new bartender girlfriend. She takes him in, nurses his wounds, falls in love and sees immediately that the major obstacle to his success is his own family.

This, again, has the flavor of comedy. Micky, so fearless in the ring, uses his girlfriend as a human shield when dealing with his mother, brother, sisters. He stands meekly behind her as she finally presents Micky's case to the family (and ends up literally fighting with the sisters).

We know that Micky will be forced to choose, but his choice is as surprising as the rest of this offbeat movie, never predictable until the final underdog-drama moments, a nod to formula that feels deserved, under the circumstances.

Bale gets the showiest role - he loses weight again and aggressively embodies the showy, bipolar manias of the addict.

But I really like what Wahlberg does here. As producer and star (he willed this movie into existence) he could have turned this into a vanity project. He didn't. He generously cedes ground to Adams and Bale, at the risk of making Micky seem passive.

He isn't passive, of course. He's just paralyzed, by people he loves but doesn't understand and can't change. To make that point, Wahlberg is brave enough to underplay, not the kind of thing that gets attention at Oscar time, but worth celebrating nonetheless.