In Fighting, director Dito Montiel and his co-writer Robert Munic park themselves between spots when they inject honesty and New York charm into a painfully trite genre movie, but fail to truly commit to making it work. It’s either a good urban drama with really bad plotting, or a bad fighting flick with really good passion.
The faults are obvious, as it should be with this obvious of a premise. Shawn McArthur (Channing Tatum) is a street kid making bread selling odds-and-ends on the streets, until an impromptu street brawl catches the attention of low-end hustler Harvey (Terrence Howard), who then uses what connections he still has to get Shawn into high stakes underground fights for $5,000, then $10,000, and so on, until the final fight, which, of course, happens to be personal.
Though stripped of the usual gloss, this typical fight formula is as thin as a cancerous supermodel. It’s predictable down to a science, and Fighting even goes so far as eliminating all motivation and conflict for its hero. What obstacles does he encounter? Just the nameless, featureless opponents at each fight. Why does he fight? $$$. Even the transparently vapid Ong Bak, of which it shares a similar framework, had more of a narrative than this; this one’s rarely makes sense, as the characters go through all the cliched emotions suddenly and arbitrarily.
At one point, after just winning five thousand dollars and not doing anything with them, Shawn goes to Harvey with puppy dog eyes and a desperate voice, pleading “I really need money, Harvey.” For what? We don’t know. He’s homeless, crashing on Harvey’s couch and has no hobbies or ambitions to speak of. Is there a deleted subplot where Shawn has to pay back equity loans? The message seems to be that you gotta fight to win at all cost, and then you’ll be happy because you get all the money—which makes Fighting some sort of Fight Club for morons who took Fight Club at face value.
But Montiel is less concerned with forming a coherent movie as he is with the individual moments. He’s too in love with the pick up shots of his gritty homebrew New York, accompanied by electric hip hop. He loves shooting fight scenes as raw as possible, as if a real street fight you’d see at these back-alley promotions, more than giving the fights any actual weight or context. He also loves the dating scenes between Shawn and his club crush Zulay (Zulay Henao), even willing to sacrifice good dialogue to see the same awkward non-exchange over and over. A deliberately long drawn out “will-they-or-won’t-they-kiss” scene between Shawn and Zulay seesaws between genuinely sweet and skullbuggeringly irritating.
The performances in this movie are enigmas. Not so much because they are poorly presented, but precisely because they are convincing performances from able performers. Channing Tatum is a talent with a lot to offer, and Terrence Howard proves to be as good as always, but their characters insist on being bland and half-baked. Howard’s Harvey is soft-spoken and enunciates with a slow, drawn-out accent that baffles. Tatum’s Shawn is a believably realized person, but one who is deadeningly dull—the typical big dumb lug. His mutterings, double takes and unsophisticated vocabulary make those idle blather in mumblecore films sound like some Mark Twain shit. I’m still left wondering what secret whispers the actors and the director shared to achieve this effect, but the way Howard and Tatum consistently maintain them is deserving of a compliment.
It’s these minor assets that make Fighting even more infuriating than it should have been. Rather than settling into a cheesy brawl flick, Montiel insists on subversive authenticity, which theoretically could make a good film.
This can be summed up by its background extras: in certain shots, Montiel populates the screen with random walk-ons carrying that unique New York strangeness. A dialogue scene starts with a kid running into the shot and casually backflipping off a wall; a weirdo stands in the back of an elevator, unexplained, as Shawn and Zulay end their cute night. Fighting is made by a guy who thinks these fillers are more important than the overall story, because he knows New York and that is the real New York. Sure, but where’s the movie?
"Fighting" opens April 24, 2009 and is rated PG13. Action, Drama. Directed by Dito Montiel. Written by Dito Montiel & Robert Munic. Starring Terrence Howard, Channing Tatum, Zulay Henao, Luis Guzman, Brian White.