Fighting is that rarest of breeds, an exceedingly silly movie that’s also very well made. It’s not surprising that a New York set film from director Dito Montiel oozes authenticity. A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, his directorial debut, possessed a keen eye for the gritty streets and tight knit familial spaces of his native Queens. The lifelong New Yorker understands the city’s complex character, the discordant combination of the spiffy, corporatized world of Midtown Manhattan and the small, ethnic neighborhoods that dot the outer burrows.
The film successfully operates in both realms, while also telling the sort of fish out of water story with which the city’s cinematic identity has been closely entwined. Much of the picture takes place in small, unglamorous apartments, on crowded corners, in run down communal halls and in back of the ubiquitous souvenir stores that many New Yorkers regard with some suspicion. It’s about lonely people living at the city’s margins, struggling to make a name for themselves and take part in the giant cavalcade of riches the “if I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere” slogan seems to promise.
Sadly, this description probably makes the film sound much more interesting than it actually is. Therein lays the biggest problem with Montiel’s sophomore effort. The filmmaker simultaneously communicates the feel of New York, develops some compelling introspective drama and keeps the picture operating at a brisk pace. It’s hard not to resist some sense of pure, visceral excitement when the pulsating sounds of “Heart of the City” fill the soundtrack as star Channing Tatum makes his way through the crowded city streets. It’s equally hard, however, to avoid feeling like the plot is one big, over calculated phony.
Tatum stars as Shawn MacArthur, a country boy working as hard as he can to stay afloat in the big city. The night after getting into a dustup over his attempts to sell copies of a fake Harry Potter book, he encounters veteran hustler Harvey Boarden (Terrence Howard), the man who spurred the earlier fight. Shawn initially, understandably wants none of Harvey’s pleadings. But over the course of their conversation Harvey reveals the reason he started the fisticuff: to test Shawn, to ascertain whether he had the fighting skills to go with his physical appearance. The veteran man of the streets, designed as a kinder cross between Fagin and Ratso Rizzo, persuades the young gun that there’s money to be made in the world of illicit, underground fighting, in bouts that take place throughout NYC.
The rest of the picture charts their navigation of that world, set against the father-son dynamic that develops between them and the romance Shawn begins with single mother Zulay (Zulay Henao). Still, despite the best efforts to stay focused on these relationships, the fact remains that this is a movie called Fighting. As such, it exists primarily to bloody Tatum’s ripped body in a series of showstopper bouts with some imposing opponents. Montiel has said that he secretly wanted to make the movie without any fighting at all, to make it a classical New York character study in the vein of Midnight Cowboy. The absurdly brutal fight scenes, in which Shawn sustains major injuries from which he always recovers one scene later, distract from the naturalistic flow of the more personalized dramatics. They belong in an online fight video, or on YouTube, not in an otherwise earnest portrait of New York life. They have the uncomfortable feel of a slightly grittier version of a Jean-Claude Van Damme spectacle and rob the film of a needed dose of authenticity.
The movie Montiel actually wanted to make might be less marketable than one prominently featuring Tatum rumbling with ethnic stereotypes while shirtless, but it’d be infinitely more interesting. He’d certainly have done more to flesh out the awkward, unexplained Daddy issues tormenting Shawn and the reasons Harvey, a kind, caring character entirely unlike the usual portrait of such figures, behaves as he does. The filmmaker so successfully captures the fast paced, spur of the moment rhythms of New York’s seedier side that one wonders what else he might have done had he not had to stop everything for the fight scenes. That’s the movie Rogue Pictures and Misher Films should have gotten behind, not this phony marketing ploy.