Chronicling the rise of boxer Irish Micky Ward and the fall and redemption of his half-brother Dickie Ecklund, The Fighter is emerging as the film of the year. Starring Dorchester-born and raised Mark Wahlberg and a nearly unrecognizable Christian Bale, the film is a no holds barred tour through the underside of the American Dream. CAHIR O’DOHERTY reviews the film already hailed by the critics as Oscar bait of the highest order.

If you think The Fighter (the brilliant new film opening on limited release on Friday starring Mark Walhberg and Christian Bale) will just be one more retread of Rocky you have a surprise in store -- Sylvester Stallone never made a film this affecting or this raw.

Based on the true-life story of Lowell, Massachusetts boxing champion Irish Micky Ward, at first glance the plot looks like an all-too familiar outsider chasing the American Dream tale. But thanks to a tight script, flawless direction and some career-best performances from the cast, The Fighter actually turns out to be much better than the sum of its parts.

Wahlberg plays Ward, the true life Irish American boxing hero who keeps missing his opportunity to advance to the big leagues. There’s a good reason for that -- he’s managed by own mother, with all the conflicts that come with it.

And he’s completely overshadowed by his half-brother Dickie (Bale), the once upon a time golden boy who went the distance against Sugar Ray Leonard before morphing into a directionless crack addict.  As raw deals go, Micky’s working with one the one of the worst of them.

Wahlberg, who shot to fame in the early 1990s as the rapper Marky Mark, and who was born and raised in the Irish stronghold of Dorchester in Boston, has never been better in a role, but the film’s emotional center (and its Oscar hopes) belong to Bale and Amy Adams, both of whom are sensational throughout.

In particular Bale, most famous for his Batman roles, will be unrecognizable to his many fans. In The Fighter he’s peeled off the pounds to play the former boxing hero turned an emaciated crack addict (his facial wasting is so pronounced that you actually worry about his health).  It’s hard to think of another actor in recent years who has shown this kind of dedication to a role, or undergone this kind of drastic transformation.

And Adams more than holds her own here too. Dirtying up her good girl image (no more scowling nuns or perky princesses?) she plays Charlene Fleming, a been around the block Irish American beauty who’s comfortable being an underachiever until she meets Ward and sees a bright future she never anticipated. The budding romance between the two provides what little sweetness the film offers, and Adams and Wahlberg play their parts flawlessly.

But in The Fighter the biggest fights of Micky’s life happen out of the ring in his own family circle.  In scene after scene Ward reels from the blows to his heart and soul that are thrown by his own mother and his manipulative older brother, and he doesn’t find his feet until his burgeoning romance with Charlene unexpectedly puts him on the road to the championship.

You can see why this project appealed to Wahlberg. Set in exactly the kind of tough working class Irish American neighborhood he grew up in, The Fighter is a film about two siblings (who are often rivals) who have a difficult relationship with their mother.

In the film (and in life) Dickie was famous before Micky, just as Wahlberg’s older brother Donnie was a star in the pop group New Kids on the Block long before Marky Mark hit the charts. Even the brushes with the law, the trouble with drugs and lives seemingly spiraling out of control are subjects that both the boxer and the actor know intimately.

That kind of strong identification with a storyline can lead to an unusual degree of authenticity, and it’s what makes The Fighter so compelling from its opening reel. Filmed with a sparse, you-are-there style by director David O. Russell, it’s has an edgy independent look that suits the gritty subject matter.

Unusually in such a character driven tale, lots of screen time is given to the superb supporting cast too. As Micky’s mother and manager Melissa Leo is a fierce mix of maternal pride and selfishness in a performance that should win her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nod. Each scene in which her frosted blond 1980s hairdo appears is a theatrical smack down in its own right.

Actors and producers like to brag about how difficult the journey was before their film got the go-ahead, but the truth is The Fighter really was a years long labor of love.

Wahlberg first met the real-life Micky Ward in the early 1990s when he was just 18 and he fell under the boxer’s spell. But it was years before he realized what a great film his friend’s life would make.

“We used to run into each other at different events and stuff like that in Boston,” Wahlberg told the press this week. “I was always a huge fan of his,” he added. But he admitted it was years before he realized Micky’s story would make a powerful film.

When he finally approached the two brothers to ask their permission he learned that they had already sold the rights, and it took even longer for the project to be green lighted by Paramount.

“As an actor, as a producer, and as a friend to Micky and Dickie, and the town of Lowell, it was something that I needed to make happen. Giving up and moving on to other things was not an option,” Wahlberg said.

The Fighter, as Wahlberg tells it, is about a man confronting his last chance to make good, with all the pathos and fragile hope that implies.

But it’s not just Irish Micky Ward who’s looking for a happy ending. Lurking on the edges of every scene is his glorious, charismatic and tragically self-destructive brother Dickie, who also knows he’s looking at his last shot to turn his life around.

With stakes like these The Fighter still doesn’t manipulate your feelings with cheap sentiment or a syrupy soundtrack. Instead director Russell turns on his camera and trusts his cast and his story to pull you in. Some critics have groused that the script takes liberties with the actual life, but for the two hours or so the film progresses there isn’t a frame wasted.

The surprising thing about The Fighter is that, for a boxing film, it never loses sight of just how vulnerable even the most battle-hardened fighter can be when it comes to love and family.

Wahlberg is a revelation in a film that plays to every one of his strengths and his own history. This film strength springs directly from his own hard won experience, and its power to move you comes from knowing how just deeply he loves and admires the Irish American family and heroes at its center. Don’t miss it.

The Fighter opens on limited release on Friday before going nationwide in January.