A film review by Craig J. Koban


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

Directed by Dito Montiel / Written by Robert Munic and Montiel

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 conclusion. 

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 monetary prize. 

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 man.  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.

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