If ever a movie deserved the largely meaningless assessment of “it is what it is,” Dito Montiel’s Fighting is that movie. It is exactly what you think will be: a fairly dumb fight drama of the sort that Hollywood has been knocking out since Francis Wallace’s story Kid Galahad was committed to film in 1937. In fact, Fighting pretty much is an uncredited rehash of Kid Galahad with a slight modern varnish job. It’s still the story of a promoter spotting raw fighting talent in a kid and helping to turn him into a star fighter. That it’s on some vaguely defined underground bare-knuckle circuit changes very little, nor does it make it any less hokey. The point is that’s what Fighting offers you, and if that appeals to you, so might the movie.
The story finds Shawn MacArthur (Channing Tatum, Stop Loss) as a young man from Alabama living in abject poverty in New York City, where he’s trying to make a living selling merchandise of dubious authenticity on the street. While he’s in the midst of arguing with a customer over her purchase of a patently phony book called Harry Potter Versus the Hippopotamus (anybody who believes such a book exists deserves to buy a copy), Shawn is robbed and a fight breaks out. Naturally enough, this is witnessed by small-time hustler—and apparently, aspiring fight promoter—Harvey Boarden (Terrence Howard), who is impressed by Derek’s pugilistic prowess and chases after the boy with offers of making him a well-paid fighter.
In all honesty, there’s certainly an admirable quality to the economy of it all—especially when contrasted with the clunky development of another of this week’s releases, Obsessed. When you factor in the development that the Harry Potter customer turns out to have been Shawn’s “meeting cute” encounter with soon-to-be romantic interest Zulay Valez (Zulay Henao, Feel the Noise), the sense of economy is all the greater. Unfortunately, so is the movie’s apparent love affair with every cliché in the book—an affliction that gets worse and worse as things progress.
What is most damaging to the film is perhaps its futile insistence that it’s somehow more than a bargain-basement B picture. What director and co-writer Dito Montiel needed was a studio head standing over him à la Barton Fink and telling him, “What’s to understand? It’s a wrestling picture.” (One might add that it’s also a Channing Tatum beefcake movie, but that’s another matter.) The efforts to make it something “more” mostly result in a cascade of movie-cliché backstories, underworld tropes and calculatedly predictable “surprises.” These things—including a fussy old-world grandmother (Altagracia Guzmán, I Heart Huckabees) for comic relief—undeniably goose the kitsch level of the whole thing, but they hardly deepen it.
The performances range from uneven in the case of Tatum (who alternates in between a stab at a Southern accent and a dese-dem-dose Brooklyn one), to the agreeable in the case of Zulay Henao, to the sleepwalking performance of Luis Guzmán, to the downright weird one from Terrence Howard. This isn’t the first time I’ve questioned Howard’s judgment in taking a role (see Awake and The Perfect Holiday), but this may be the first time I’ve wondered what the hell he was doing with the part. It’s almost as if he thinks that if he plays it all quietly enough, he might evaporate from the movie altogether. It doesn’t work—and neither does the movie. Rated PG-13 for intense fight sequences, a sex scene and brief strong language.