A film review by Craig J. Koban
2009, PG-13, 105 mins.
2009, PG-13, 105 mins.
Shawn: Channing Tatum / Harvey: Terrence Howard / Zulay:
Zulay Henao / Lila: Altagracia Guzman / Martinez: Luis
Guzman / Jack Dancing Roger: Guenveur Smith / Ajax: Michael
Rivera / Ray Ray: Flaco Navaja / Z: Peter Tambakis
One thing is absolutely certain about this film: it has a great title.
I mean…FIGHTING...hmmmm…it’s simple, succinct, and genuinely opens up a whole smorgasbord of audience expectations. Without reservation, I went into this film thinking, “Okay, it may unreservedly stink, but at least I get to see people kick each others’ asses for 90-plus minutes."
What’s perhaps most
compelling about FIGHTING is that it actually does not contain all that
much fighting, per se, throughout its 105 minutes.
Yes, it certainly has a series of chaotically intense scenes of head
smacking and bone crunching machismo, to be sure, but
FIGHTING is surprisingly low key in terms of its overall approach.
More often than not, the film paints itself sincerely with an indie-drama
tone and pacing. It also does
a virtuoso job of capturing the gritty verisimilitude of its seedy and
imposing New York backdrop, not to mention that it also contains some individual performances that find an effective emotional resonation (which
is refreshing, to say the least).
Yet, there is an overwhelming
sensation that this film suffers from what I call Cinematic Multiple
Personality Disorder: Is
FIGHTING attempting to be a B-grade, grind house shout-out to the
wonderfully lurid and mindless exploitation films of the 1970’s (which
it hints at several times, especially with its music score) or is it
trying to be a searing and introspective character drama that captures
some bitter and hard truths (slight echoes of MIDNIGHT COWBOY are oddly
felt here). The
main problem with FIGHTING is that it never seems to germinate successfully
with either extreme: it rarely finds a comfortable grove between its
divergent themes and moods, so much so that, in the end, it finds itself
in a tough fight just to overcome its own extremely predictable plot conventions. For
a film that makes certain subliminal promises based on its title alone,
one would certainly expect it to not move so sluggishly.
FIGHTING promises blood splattering mayhem, but
there will definitely be many out there that will be surprised (or perhaps
a bit taken aback, depending on your prerogative) by how much talking
occurs in it, sometimes in scenes that begin and find no satisfying
Perhaps even more
disconcerting is that FIGHTING contains a relative laundry list of
genre clichés and contrivances. It’s
an underdog fight film about a lowly and disrespected figure that tries to
carve out some much needed self-respect and sense of personal honor by facing off
against superior opponents. It
also is a story about how “tough” it is to live on the streets and how
the city is often a catalyst for moral decay.
Then, of course, we have a story about how a kid is mentored by a
wiser and world-wearier mentor, but both manage to teach each other some
valuable life lessons along the way.
Finally, we have the obligatory love interest that will tame the
man-child beast into submission and the equally obligatory main villain
that will inevitably face off against the hero in the final, climatic
fight. Yup, FIGHTING in no
way reinvents the wheel here.
Early on we meet a homeless
street kid with the proverbial heart of gold named Shawn MacArthur (Channing
Tatum, who looks more like a blemish free model than an actual homeless bum)
that has just recently moved to New York were he is struggling to make
end’s meat. Shawn does manage to make some money by attempting to sell
incredibly bad designer brand knockoffs to naïve buyers (like Harry
Potter books that no one has ever heard of before). During
one fateful day he is discovered by Harvey (Terrance Howard, far too good
for this material) as a small time hoodlum and ticket scalper that
instantly sees some serious potential in Shawn in the underground
street-fighting ring. Shawn,
you see, was a former collegiate amateur wrestler that hit bad times and
was forced to leave school (hence, his self-imposed exile in the Big
Apple), but he still has his mat skills, not to mention a serious right
hook and a super human, Balboa-esque ability to take punishment.
Faster than you can say “Yo,
Adrian” Harvey takes the wet-behind-the-ears Shawn under his wings in an
attempt to get him involved in the very lucrative world of underground
fighting. The first fight, which ends rather clumsily for Shawn, nets
him hefty $5000 purse, and each of his successive battles ups his
potential prize that much further (his second match is for $10,000 and
then to $100,000). Slowly,
but surely, Shawn becomes an overnight sensation as one of the most lethal
street fighters in New York, which certainly catches the eye of many
duplicitous promoters and criminal thugs.
While Shawn learns the ropes of his new trade, he becomes easily
smitten with beautiful young single mother, Zulay (the luminous Zulay
Henao), who allows for the big brute to bring his emotional guard down a
tad. Inevitably, Shawn comes
face to face with an “enemy” of sorts from his past, which culminates
in a climatic showdown where there is more on the line than just a large
FIGHTING does a very decent
job of finding just the right level of grit to the proceedings, which
gives the film a much better sense of realism than it perhaps deserves.
The director, rock
musician turned director, Dito Montiel, makes good use of his New York
settings, which provides a real foreboding atmosphere to the overall story
(the severely cramped apartments, the narrow alley ways, the dark and
grungy locales of the fights themselves – all of this creates a tangible
atmosphere to FIGHTING). Some
of the performances are also really solid: Zulay Henao finds a nice
undercurrent of sad melancholy to her lonely mother character, which helps
elevate her otherwise one-note character, and the
great Terrance Howard, who is capable of being so gently beguiling, really
morphs into his fairly routine role as the mentor figure.
Just watch the calm level of detached emotion that Howard brings to
many specific scenes, which helps to allow for the melodrama to breathe with
a bit more truth and tenderness (like one key moment when he treats the
prospect of his own murder like a curious afterthought, or even with the
way he reacts to the Shawn’s fights in the film).
Lesser actors would have chewed up the scenery to egregious levels,
but Howard provides a textbook example here of restraint and focus.
Howard is so rock solid that
he, ironically enough, underscores the film’s other weaknesses.
Channing Tatum (a former model turned actor) looks suitably beefy
for his role and does an adequate job of underplaying his part. The real problem with Tatum’s casting is that he looks far
too good to be taking seriously as a downtrodden and penniless homeless
Moreover, he lacks charisma with his overall performance (one-note
brooding and pouting, which Tatum does here to the max, is not enough to
craft a fully realized performance), not to mention that he seems
awkward as to whether to play Shawn as a tough and dexterous lethal weapon
or as a delicate Southern gentleman with noble intentions.
The character of Shawn emerges as a distraction in the film: if you
don’t fully buy into his role and develop a rooting interest for him,
then the film is lost. Tatum’s disruptively one note, banal, and stilted
performance holds back the film back.
Beyond that, but there is not
one compelling, surprising, or intriguing development in this entire
screenplay. The fights are stylish and pack a respectable wallop, but are
lamentably sanitized (this is
another pathetic example of a what could have been a decent R-rated action
flick being marginalized by the profit-motivation of a more audience and
age friendly PG-13 rating). The
final developments, which hastily introduce a shadowy figure from
Shawn’s past, are haphazardly developed and refined, and the love
interest angle – although sometimes tenderly realized – seems too perfunctory. I guess that
there are only so many thrills that can be derived from a film where
anyone with a level head can strategically predict where it’s going at
any give time.
FIGHTING has moments of subtle inspiration: Terrance Howard gives another dignified and wonderfully reined in performance (he’s always interesting to watch) and the film captures the little details of city life with a surprising sense of style. Ultimately, nothing can save FIGHTING from the impact of its dull, monotonous, and dramatically flaccid storyline: Sometimes it’s so serious it becomes unintentionally funny, whereas sometimes its so cheesy and mindless that it’s impossible to take it too seriously. There is certain level of modest ambition to FIGHTING (on a positive, it’s not really trying to be just another tedious exercise in non-stop fisticuffs and violence: it tries to impart a coarse and grimy reality to New Yorker life in the proceedings while also trying to create small moments of real introspection between various characters). In the end, FIGHTING becomes almost as innocuous as its title and instead of either fully embracing its cheaply exploitative roots or becoming a thoughtful and searing human drama it becomes a film that seems a bit lost within itself. For a film with initial promise, this one taps out too early and easily for a strong recommendation on my part.