LIKE most boxing films, the biggest battles the characters face in The Fighter take place outside of the ring, and it is the emotionally arresting struggles of Mark Wahlberg’s Micky Ward and Christian Bale’s Dickie Eklund that make this film such a knockout.

Based on a true story, the film is set in small-town Lowell, Massachusetts, in the US in 1993, and charts Micky’s attempts to kick-start his boxing career while coping with the demands of his larger-than-life ex-boxer-turned-crackhead half-brother Dickie and his domineering manager mother Alice Ward (Melissa Leo).

Dickie and Alice are supposedly committed to training and managing Micky, but their selfishness and incompetence only hinder his career, making him increasingly frustrated.

However, Dickie and Alice are so dominating and manipulative, and Micky is so meek outside the ring, that he does not have the courage to break free of them to achieve his dreams.

But when Micky develops a relationship with local barmaid Charlene (Amy Adams), who encourages him to take control of his life and stand up to his overbearing family, he finally gains the strength to walk away from his family and subsequently sets foot on the path to success in the ring.

Essentially, Micky is at the centre of an emotional tug-of-war throughout the film, with Dickie and Alice on one side and Charlene on the other.

This emotional struggle, along with Dickie’s journey from a drug-addled has-been dwelling in former glory to a skilled boxing trainer, forms the heart of the film.

That’s not to say the in-ring action is a let down, as the fight scenes are truly exhilarating; I was literally on the edge of my seat, willing Micky to land a winning blow.

Director David O. Russell handles these fight scenes – which are some of the most realistic I have seen – extremely well, particularly during the exciting, if predictable climactic bout.

Indeed, Russell's direction is impressive throughout, mixing different approaches and incorporating documentary-style footage (Dickie is followed by a film crew making a film about drug addiction) to give the picture a gritty authenticity.

The acting matches the excellent direction, with Bale – who lost 30lbs for the role – and Leo deservedly winning Best Supporting Actor and Actress Oscars and Adams earning her nomination in the same category.

However, Wahlberg – who was overlooked by The Academy – is just as good, delivering a quietly engaging performance that anchors the film by being less showy than his three co-stars.

An excellent script disguises the fact that, essentially, this is a standard triumph-over-adversity story, and a dark humour adds another element to the film.

Brilliantly directed and acted, The Fighter is an engaging drama that packs a powerful emotional punch.

The Fighter is available on DVD now.