Caveat reader: I am a serious mark for a movie like Fighting. Not
because I’m some kind of martial arts guy (of all the exploitation
genres, martial arts remains my weak spot), but because director Dito
Montiel does two things that I love: he shoots New York City
beautifully and he creates tiny little worlds in which I can believe,
even when they’re patently ridiculous.



Fighting is short on plot: Channing Tatum is a southern boy making a
hard scrabble life hustling on the streets of NYC. He’s selling knock
off iPods and fake books (Harry Potter vs the Hippopotamus), and he’s
doing it so badly that even old ladies are taking him. If he can’t
quite hustle there’s one thing he can do – throw a punch. Terence
Howard (playing Ratso Rizzo as a black guy who can walk just fine) sees
Tatum knocking around a couple of street goofs and knows that he can
make some money off this kid in the world of underground bareknuckle
brawling.



As Channing gets in deeper with this huckster with a heart of gold he
falls in love with a pretty single mom waitress (whose heart, also, is
golden) and finds out that his nemesis from college is… gasp!… also
on the bareknuckle boxing scene. Think these guys will run into each
other by the movie’s finale?



But the joy I got from Fighting didn’t come from its hackneyed plot
developments but rather from the detail with which Montiel mounts each
scenario. In many ways Fighting feels like a post-Grand Theft Auto
version of Punch Out, as Tatum goes from neighborhood to neighborhood
for each fight, and with each neighborhood being utterly ethnically
distinct, like a video game level. None of these neighborhoods and
ethnic enclaves – a Russian church in Brooklyn, a Puerto Rican bodega
in the Bronx, an Asian gambling/whore house in Chinatown, an under
construction penthouse in the Financial District – feel real, but they
do feel complete. Each time Tatum and his band of merry mooks come to
one of these locations you feel like you’re entering a complete world.
Montiel crafts every scene perfectly, capturing the nuance of each
place as surely as each planet in Star Wars feels like its own complete
environment.



And I don’t mind that none of these ring ‘true.’ The film creates a New
York that feels either pre-Giuliani or, more charitably, one year in
the future. It’s easy to see New York coming back into a shitty place
after a year of the New Depression. In fact, watching the movie I kept
thinking that this is what a gritty, street-level movie would look like
in The Warriors universe. It takes itself very seriously, it’s about
the people scrabbling to get by, and yet you completely believe that a
gang dressed like mime baseball players could come around the corner at
any moment.



That world is shot wonderfully. Montiel has a real eye for New York
City, especially for streets that don’t look like they’ve been shot a
million times before. I know many of the places where he shot, and
Montiel really manages to get some serious production value out of some
pretty boring, touristy blocks in midtown. And he doesn’t stick to a
couple of streets in midtown; the film wanders across the city (or very
convincingly fakes it) and captures some gritty, real and beautiful
tableaus.



But Montiel can’t fill those tableaux with anything that resonates. And
he can’t populate the world he creates with any characters who matter,
or have depth. The natural charismas of Channing Tatum and Terence
Howard only take things so far; eventually you begin to realize that
there’s a lot to look at (especially if you happen to be the kind of
person who digs young hottie Tatum) but nothing to really hold your
interest. Every character development – Tatum has daddy issues, Howard
is trying to get back at the hustlers he started with who have
graduated to legitimate underworld figures – feels hollow and
pointless, just another step that has to be taken to get us to the next
fight.



The fights, by the way, are pretty good. I like the way Montiel shoots
them; it doesn’t feel like he’s aping anybody else or trying to fit his
fights into a particular ‘school’ of shooting and choreography. Each
fight feels very much its own (and ridiculous. Tatum fights a karate
guy in Chinatown. Of course), but not overly stylized. I liked the way
the fights traveled; if this was the video game it sometimes feels like
the box would boast ‘fully destructible environments.’ I’m one of the
few who really fell for Montiel’s first film, A Guide to Recognizing
Your Saints
(again, lovely New York City cinematography, detailed
little world that feels complete), but I wasn’t sure from that film how
he would handle the action. While there’s not enough fighting to
justify the fact that the movie is called Fighting, the fighting we see
is terrific.



Some of the supporting players are good. The dopey faux-thugs who hang
with Howard aren’t exactly good actors, but they have an enjoyable
energy. Luis Guzman is passable as a ticket scalper gone big. And Roger
Guenveur Smith, a one-time Spike Lee regular, is delightfully
ridiculous as the guy who runs the underground fighting ring. My
colleague James Rocchi rightly pinpointed that Smith is doing some kind
of exaggerated (!!!) Christopher Walken impersonation, and he’s the
only guy who feels like he’d rather just be in The Warriors, not the
sub-Cassavetes version of it.



But again, everything else… The script feels like it needed another
three passes, at least, before it was even in the right shape to be
shown to a studio. And Tatum and Howard both approach their roles with
a mumbling, Brando-esque thing that means many of the film’s dialogue
scenes are between two guys who can’t start thoughts, let alone
complete them. I see how this feels like a bold artistic choice on the
page – these guys talk like these guys would talk in real life! – but
in practice it makes for lots of irritating incoherence.



And the female lead is bad beyond compare. Zulay Henao (star of Grizzly
Park
!!!) is so bad that I suspect they gave her character the name
Zulay so that she wouldn’t be confused when people called her a
different name during scenes. I was in agony every minute she was on
screen and doing something more than looking gorgeous; up against
Tatum, who is a truly gifted naturalistic performer, she feels even
flatter. It’s a disaster, and having her as the romantic lead torpedoes
what was already a very rickety subplot.



The Shield‘s Brian J White is the bad guy fighter; there’s a moment
when he’s introduced where you think maybe the movie will give him some
layers and depth, but then it becomes painfully obvious that this guy
is just a dick. If this was an 80s movie the character would have been
wearing a polo shirt with the collar popped up. White brings no nuance,
subtlety or interest to the role.



It’s hard to actually recommend Fighting. I liked it, but for my own
specific reasons. I think Tatum really is great, even when given little
to work with, but at times it does feel like he may have been given way
too little. Terence Howard makes interesting choices, especially with
his Harvey Milk-esque voice, but interesting choices aren’t always ones
you want to deal with for a film’s entire running time. I think that
Fighting may find an audience on home video, where the flaws become
easier to tune out and the things that are good – and that are, on
occasion, legitimately great – are easier to focus on.

6.5 out of 10