Before he became a habitué of crack houses, Dicky was himself a contender who fought memorably against Sugar Ray Leonard. Now he's being followed around by an HBO documentary crew for what we are initially led to believe is a movie about his "comeback" but is actually an installment in a series on lives wrecked by drugs.
Russell, along with his screen-writers, Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson, keeps all these characters in a perpetual state of hectic imbalance. The fighters' knockabout lives are all of a piece inside and outside the ring.
Micky and Dicky never quite know from moment to moment where the next punch will be coming from, but we do. That's because we've already seen many of the boxing movies – from "The Set-Up" and "Somebody Up There Likes Me" to "Rocky" and "Raging Bull" – that "The Fighter" draws on.
Because so many of those movies are so enjoyable, "The Fighter" is not without its pedigreed pleasures. Russell films Micky's ascent up the boxing ladder as a series of face-offs with the no-frills immediacy of cable TV smackdowns. He saves the best, the title shot, for last. (What he leaves out entirely are the subsequent historic trilogy of fights against Arturo Gatti that constitute Micky's homeboy legend.)
Whenever "The Fighter" moves away from the ring, it loses its bearings – and its verity. Micky's extended family, beginning with his mother, is a screeching caricature of working-class discombobulation. His seven sisters, for example, are a recurring Greek chorus of chain-smoking couch potatoes.