Movies about the shady world of underground fighting and gambling have been done to death; director/writer Dito Montiel’s “FIGHTING” is another entry into this overused genre. Ok, so what made me sit through this film? Well, I am a sucker for fight sequences and I do believe that such a stereotypical movie can shine when the fight scenes themselves take center stage. Channing Tatum may not be the best actor for the role and admittedly the man isn’t known for his acting skills, but he does ’look’ the role of the underdog; that, combined with the fact that Montiel brings a lively feel and look of a contemporary New York City--oh, I also like watching fight scenes.
Shawn McArthur (Channing Tatum) hails from Birmingham, Alabama who comes to the Big Apple to make a living selling bootleg books, CDs and DVDs. Shawn is desperate to make a big score and when he crosses paths with a more experienced hustler in the person of Harvey Broaden (Terrence Howard) after a fight with his associates, Shawn gets recruited to participate in bare knuckle fights for some major money. Somewhere along the way, Shawn meets up with Evan Hailey (Brian White); a man from his past who supposedly trained with him in his father’s wrestling school. Shawn is determined to make the big score; whatever it takes…
The film’s premise is undoubtedly unimaginative and completely routine. While Montiel does bring try to bring a lively atmosphere in this world of shady characters composed of hustlers, gamblers and underground fighters in New York’s shadowy corners, he has so little cards in his hands. Sure, he does bring the sights of New York in the composition as with “Saints”, but the characters in this film are pretty stereotypical and feel like mere caricatures of what they may have been. It is full of shady, intimidating dark figures that are in it for greed and angry heroes with issues complete with ‘macho-posturing’. It borrows heavily from elements established by “Lionheart” and the 1975 classic “Hard Times”.
Montiel attempts to bring the relationship between Harvey and Shawn into bear but he is severely hampered by the screenplay that offers little to no surprises. The problem is that the film telegraphs its punches way too soon, and it misses several opportunities; the subplot with Shawn’s father is never given any room to develop and the rivalry between Evan and Shawn isn’t fully utilized--they felt like they were just using the usual practices of machismo. The only good character that adds some twist is in the person of Zulay (Zulay Henao) who plays Shawn’s love interest. The script tries to promote a moody, realistic and seedy feel, and while it does on some level, it just couldn’t capitalize on what its got.
Ok, so this film isn’t going to win any Oscars, but a film like this can stay aloft when the fights are brutal and fresh. Well, Montiel does give the fights a somewhat realistic feel, they are messy and in this unrated cut, a bit more violent and longer (with 2 minutes of added footage). They are shot in a manner that keeps the action close, playing on the facial expressions of the fighters to express emotion. Some of the fights did manage to provoke my interest, as they became harder with more seasoned opponents but I thought the movie could’ve used more fights to serve in its build up and to invest on Shawn’s reputation in the fighting arena. Also, I thought Shawn’s fight with the Asian fighter was the best one. Still, being an action junkie, I have seen a lot of superb fight scenes; beautifully choreographed as well as simple realistic ones--the fights in “Fighting” offers nothing fresh and are just OK. But for a film that should focus on the brutal encounters, “OK” just doesn’t cut it. It left me nothing to look forward to, and I could just predict on how everything would turn out.
The acting is a mixed bag. Tatum is a good-looking actor, (or so my lady friends say) but his skills as a performer is mediocre at best. There is a subway training scene that gives his character some intensity but we’ve all seen it better. The chemistry between Howard and Tatum feels forced as all it seemed that the two shared are stares and a contest of who gets to mumble more effectively. Zulay Henao (I love that first name) is charming and very attractive; her love scenes with Tatum are filled with the usual ‘holding hands’ during love making. The idea of the twist as to what her relationship with Harvey had promise but it made no impact on its narrative. Evan Hailey (played by White) felt too averaged as the main antagonist and acts more like a high school bully than a fighter with a fearsome record.
“Fighting” should have been grittier and more violent to achieve the character’s depth as an underdog and for the hero’s fortitude to be felt. The film’s screenplay tries but never quite reaches its goal because of its weak script; you can just feel that it went on its journey but it never reached its destination. “Fighting” is just a bare-knuckled flick that would not inflict damage to other films in this genre. Overall, “Fighting” is a just a mediocre urban melodrama.