David O. Russell's "The Fighter" made its debut as a not-so secret screening as part of AFI Fest 2010 tonight and the awards season contender came out swinging.  Playing incredibly well to the packed Mann Grauman's Chinese Theater audience, the Paramount and Relativity Media picture proved it has the chance to be a big crowd pleaser and substantial box office hit.  Oh, and as suspected, it's a legitimate Oscar player.

Based on the true story of light welterweight boxer "Irish" Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), "The Fighter" chronicles a rough patch in the fighter's history where his relationship with his brother Dick "Dickie" Eklund (Christian Bale) and mother Alice (Melissa Leo) comes to a crossroads.  Amy Adams plays Charlene, Ward's girlfriend who helps him navigate some tough decisions regarding his career during this period.  Adams also happens to be the biggest surprise of the film.

A lot of the awards season heat before this public debut had been on Bale and Leo in the supporting races.  No surprise, Bale should easily land a best supporting actor Oscar nod for his physical transformation to skin and bones alone.  And, as a crack addict who is teetering on losing everything, Bale delivers some of his best work (although it will be tough for him to overcome "The King's Speech's" Geoffrey Rush for the win).  But, in a film full of colorful if not close to over-the-top characters (Alice and Dickie in particular), it's Adams grounded and realistic Charlene that keeps the film from going dramatically off the rails.  Leo, unfortunately, can't pull the overbearing and loud Alice out from becoming close to a caricature at times.  And, sadly, while very entertaining, she even borders on camp in some scenes (a publicist is cringing at the use of that word somewhere every time you read it).

As Ward, Wahlberg (who is also a producer on the film) is doing his familiar stoic and quiet thing, but as the picture progresses he subtly (yes, I used "subtle" in association with Wahlberg) frames the arc of his character in directions you wouldn't expect.  Considering the previously noted lightening bright turns of Leo and Bale in the film, that's no easy task for the former "Departed" star.  The best actor race is incredibly competitive, but if someone like "Get Low's" Robert DuVall or "The Social Network's" Jesse Eisenberg were to falter as a nominee Wahlberg is one of a select few who could slip in the five (ironically, DuVall was a guest of Wahlberg and the filmmakers at the screening).

Russell, who replaced Darren Aronofsky in the director's chair, does some inspired work here.  He's given the unenviable task of trying to dress up a boxing tale audiences have seen before in other incarnations in a fresh and unfamiliar way.  He accomplishes this by bringing a rock n'roll fluidity to a lot of the picture and his decision to shoot the boxing scenes digitally so they look like real TV broadcasts was a gutsy move that really pays off.  It also helps make Wahlberg's transformation as a boxer (he trained off and on for four years for the role) even more impressive.  Can he steal a best director nomination or receive some love from his Director's Guild peers?  Eh, he's got a shot.

In the all important best picture race "The Fighter" is in the ten for now and it's hard to see it not pulling out the nomination on Jan. 25.  It is not, however, a lock.  Well, not yet anyway, but strong box office and some very good reviews should eventually seal the deal.

"The Fighter" opens in limited release on Dec. 10.

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