In this New York story, the gloves really are off
'Fighting" has a dumb title and a story as old as dirt (he fights, he loves, he wins!). But "Fighting" also has real grit and excellent acting. In other words, there is gold in that dirt. The movie courses with the crazy energy and urban life that usually get sapped out of these tales of men beating the life out of each other. This one feels almost electrically authentic.
The stars create people instead of action figures. That seems right since so much of this movie, directed and co-written by Dito Montiel, is comfortable with the rhythms of inaction - watching, talking, waiting. Channing Tatum plays Shawn MacArthur, an Alabama-born hawker of cheap merchandise in New York. Terrence Howard plays Harvey Boarden, the schemer who whisks him into the lucrative underworld of gloveless street pummeling.
Howard talks in a high, whiny singsong, and his hair is back to that almost-marcelled S-Curl sheen. He's the most effortlessly charismatic man in the movies. But he rarely gets to connect that suaveness to the flesh and bone of a persuasively drawn character.
Harvey is as much a pimp as the one Howard played in "Hustle & Flow." This one is a sad failure, too, the sort who had big dreams but wound up with this life instead. He's also a manipulator, cajoling the self-confident Shawn to consider throwing his fights. Harvey says he's from Chicago, yet there's a lot of Nathan Detroit in there, as well as Ratso Rizzo and some part Marlon Brando never got to play 30 years ago.
Tatum, meanwhile, comes from the same handsome-boy modeling school that's brought us Paul Walker, Josh Hartnett, and Ryan Reynolds. Yet his intensity - especially when he's watching other actors, namely the wonderful Zulay Henao, who plays a standoffish nightclub waitress - also makes you think about young Stallone, Brando, and Rourke.
The movie throws a villain our way, a cocky amateur wrestler (Brian White) from Shawn's shady past. I wish Montiel, who wrote the film with Robert Munic, had lowered the volume on the character's villainy, but White does solid work with an empty part. He just doesn't get to be as vivid or funny as Roger Guenveur Smith and Luis Guzman, who play sleazebag business partners, or Altagracia Guzman as Henao's deceptively dotty granny. Her natural comic timing is to die for. Between this movie and 2002's "Raising Victor Vargas," she's our new Catherine Scorsese.
"Fighting" brings us a New York that Hollywood rarely gets around to anymore. The nightclubs feel like nightclubs. The tiny housing-project apartments in Brooklyn are cramped. The contests look as if the dudes fighting them are really hurting each other. The fights themselves consist of two men, a rowdy crowd, bets that can get astronomical. The venues are homemade. One happens in an upstairs room of what looks like a church. Another is in a lot behind a Bronx bodega.
There is no ring to contain the chaos. Yet while the fights are grueling and merciless, they are not as lawlessly sadistic as the ones in, say, last year's "Never Back Down." In fact, what surrounds several of these confrontations is the sort of comedy you find in old-fashioned cafeteria brawls: amused exclamations about the general unprettiness of the fighters' form. This isn't boxing. It's fighting. It's also funny. One brawl ends early after a homegirl shoots a bystander in the ear. What? He spilled beer on her.
Montiel, whose first film was 2006's autobiographical "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints" (better title, lesser movie, also with Tatum), is more in his element here, working with fewer family-melodrama clichés and delving deep into New York's pores. It takes gumption to set half your movie under the city's shaky sidewalk scaffolds. It takes even more to stage your climax on the terrace of a banker's Wall Street high-rise. Metaphor or not, the beating that transpires there gets at a certain recession-era fury. Sometimes you just want to throw a jerk through a sheet of drywall.