"The Fighter" is a raw, heartfelt and inspirational drama based on the true professional boxing careers of "The Pride of Lowell," Dicky Eckland (Christian Bale), a Massachusetts fighter who descended into becoming a crack addict, and his younger half-brother, "Irish" Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), who rose to become the 2000 World Boxing Union light welterweight champion.

"The Fighter" is an Oscars contender, receiving nominations for supporting actor (Bale, who has a good shot at winning), supporting actress (Amy Adams and Melissa Leo, the latter also a frontrunner), director (David O. Russell), screenplay and picture.

Micky Ward must not only battle opponents in the ring, but his dysfunctional family outside the ring, including the stage mother of all stage mothers, Alice (Leo), who is also his manager; half-brother, Dicky Eckland (Bale), who is beating himself up figuratively and taking Micky down with him; and girlfriend, Charlene (Adams), as emotionally feisty as he is serene.

The story covers the time frame, 1993, when Micky was still scuffling for fights, up to 2003, when he retired from the ring.

Russell ("I Heart Huckabees," "Three Kings") has directed a gritty, in-your-face, emotionally-charged film. There's a documentary sense to dialogue, family squabbles and ringside action, augmented by recreating family home movies and HBO boxing match telecasts.

Director of Photography Hoyte Van Hoytema, a Swiss cinematographer, pays nuanced attention to convey character and emotion. When Micky contemplates the challenges in his family, Wahlberg is shown in profile, through his car window, which reflects clouds.

The screenplay, by Scott Silver ("8 Mile"), Paul Tamasy ("Air Bud") and Eric Johnson, based on a story by Tamasy, Johnson and Keith Dorrington, balances personal dialogue and fight talk ("head, body, head, body" strategy). Several pivotal scenes linger long after the movie concludes.

Bale ("The Dark Knight," 2008) is wild-eyed, gaunt and frenetic as a boxer fighting inner demons.

Wahlberg ("The Departed") is wonderfully subdued, almost silent, as the long-suffering pugilist on whose gloves the fortunes of a family and town depend. His furrowed brow, hangdog expression and calm demeanor serve the role well. As the fighter, he's believable in the ring.

Adams ("Julie and Julia," "Doubt," "Sunshine Cleaning," "Enchanted") gets better and better. She submerges herself in the role of a plain, but plainly beautiful, young woman.

Leo ("Frozen River") is over-the-top as a lioness protecting her brood of seven daughters and two sons. Her blonde mane, intense facial expressions and brassy body language let us know where her boys got their fighting spirit.

Fine in supporting roles are Jack McGee as the father, George Ward; Mickey O'Keefe, playing himself as a Lowell Police Department sergeant and mentor-trainer for Micky; and the seven women playing Micky's sisters. Sugar Ray Leonard has a small role as himself.

The soundtrack's abundance of rock, pop and dance hits pumps up the action with the Rolling Stones' "Can't You Hear Me Knocking," Aerosmith's "Back in the Saddle," Ben Harper's "Glory & Consequence," and Gene Krupa's drum solo on Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing." As my friend at the screening noted, "Nothing says trouble like Gene Krupa playing the drums."

"The Fighter" is right up there with the great boxing movies, including "Raging Bull" (1980), which film critics voted the best film of the 1980s. "The Fighter" packs an emotional punch that will knock you back and make your head spin. Don't miss it.

"The Fighter," MPAA rated R (Restricted. Under 17 Requires Accompanying Parent Or Adult Guardian) for language throughout, drug content, some violence and sexuality; Genre: Biography, Drama, Sport; Run time: 1 hr., 55 min.; Distributed by Paramount.

Credit Readers Anonymous: At the beginning of the "The Fighter" closing credits, there's a brief scene in a luncheonette with the real Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund.

Box Office, Jan. 21: "No Strings Attached," starring Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman, America's cinema sweetheart of the month, opened at No. 1, with a modest $20.3 million, pushing "The Green Hornet" to No. 2, $18.1 million, $63.4 million, two weeks.

3. "The Dilemma," $9.7 million, $33.3 million, two weeks; 4. "The King's Speech" held steady, $9.1 million, $58.6 million, nine weeks; 5. "True Grit," $8 million, $138.6 million, five weeks; 6. "Black Swan," Natalie Portman's second Top 10 hit, dropped one notch, $6.2 million, $83.5 million, eight weeks; 7. "The Fighter" moved back up from No. 9 to No. 7 again, $4.5 million, $73 million, seven weeks; 8. "Little Fockers," $4.3 million, $141.1 million, five weeks; 9. "Yogi Bear," $4 million, $88.8 million, six weeks; 10. "Tron: Legacy," $3.7 million, $163.2 million, six weeks

Unreel, Jan. 28:

"The Mechanic," rated R: Simon West ("Laura Croft: Tomb Raider," "Con Air") directs Jason Statham as an assassin who takes on an apprentice (Ben Foster) in a remake of the 1972 Charles Bronson movie.

"The Rite," rated PG-13: Mikael Hafstrom ("1408") directs Anthony Hopkins, Ciaran Hinds, Alice Braga and Colin O'Donoghue in a thriller about an American seminary student who attends what is said to be an exorcism school at the Vatican.

"From Prada to Nada," rated PG-13: Two sisters (Camilla Belle, Alexa Vega) are left penniless after their father's death, move in with their aunt in East Los Angeles

Oscar Watch: The Producers Guild of America, an Oscars' bellwether, chose "The King's Speech" as best picture Jan. 22. The next legitimate awards show is the Screen Actors Guild, to be telecast at 8 p.m. Jan. 30 on TNT and TBS.

Read previous movie reviews at www.tnonline.com. Email Paul Willistein at: pwillistein@tnonline.com and on Facebook.

Four Popcorn Boxes out of Five Popcorn Boxes