Despite the title, it’s not the man-to-man combat scenes that are the best things about “Fighting,” though they’re better than one usually finds in movies about underground “strong man” competitions—erratic, unpredictable, and shot in a slightly smudged, blurred style that seems almost designed to minimize their importance. (They’re also shorter and less frequent than you might expect from the trailers.) What puts it a distinct cut above the norm for such pictures are the sharp dialogue, the gritty urban texture, the intriguing characters and the strong performances.
Writer-director Dito Montiel and co-writer Robert Munic take their page from James Lee Herlihy (via Waldo Salt) and John Schlesinger of “Midnight Cowboy,” replacing the whole male hustler business with the pugilist scene. A rather simple but hapless Alabaman named Shawn MacArthur (Channing Tatum, the Jon Voight surrogate) is trying to make his way on the streets of New York. He’s adopted by Harvey Boarden (Terrence Howard, a variant on Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo), a nervy, low-rent hustler with ties to the underground fight world. Before long—after one Brooklyn bout, in fact—Shawn’s become a local celebrity, and after winning a second contest against a martial arts expert, Harvey’s able to set up a major fight that can bring in big bucks, particularly if the “manager” is able to collar enough under-the-table investors to pony up a magnum bet on Shawn—to lose. And Shawn goes along—apparently (shades of “On the Waterfront”).
There are weaknesses in how Montiel and Munic work out this plot, mostly in terms of coincidences that are almost comically implausible. The first involves the “cute” meeting between Harvey and Shawn after the hustler’s previously had his “crew” roll the out-of-towner for his meager packet of cash. But one can swallow that. More problematic is the accidentally triangular relationship that develops among Shawn, Harvey and the fighter’s romantic interest, a waitress named Zulay (Zulay Henao), which comes off as totally manufactured. But even it pales beside the incredible turn that brings an old school rival named Hailey (Brian White), now a professional boxer (though, we’re told, a college wrestler) into the mix as MacArthur’s surly opponent in his final match. And though one can enjoy the final twist that ends everything on a happy note (a far cry from “Cowboy,” of course), you have to admit that in cleverness it falls far short of “The Sting.”
But there are compensations in the snappy dialogue (especially Harvey’s) and a mix of colorful secondary characters, such as Luis Guzman’s scummy Martinez and Altagracia Guzman as Zulay’s persnickety mother, who’s delightfully hard on Shawn. (Unfortunately, you have to put up with White’s sneering Hailey and Roger Guenveur Smith’s overripe villain Jack too.) But through it all the leads carry things nicely. Valez provides a pleasant presence as a single mom struggling to raise her daughter (played by a charming kid named Gabrielle Peluccio). And Tatum, who previously worked with Montiel on “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints”) once again shows real screen presence, not just convincing in the fight scenes but showing a likable vulnerability in the intimate moments and a nice sense of humor, too.
But it’s Howard who makes the strongest impression. His Harvey can shift in a blink from nervous bravado to genuine pathos, and the actor brings his customary quicksilver skill to the mix. It’s a showy performance, but when the show is this great, who can complain?
Kudos also go to cinematographer Stefan Czapsky, who captures the atmosphere of New York City with a precision that Sidney Lumet would appreciate, and to the editing by Saar Klein and Jake Pushinsky, which adds punch to the fisticuffs. In fact, the only real weakness in the production department has to do with the bruises and scratches that Shawn gets in his fights, which magically disappear, it seems, by the next day.
So “Fighting” may not score a knockout, but it sure wins on points.