For the first half hour or so of Dito Montiel’s “Fighting,” a movie about
knitting tea cozies dudes hammering each other’s skulls, there’s a somewhat surprising retro quality on display, as the camera drifts over seamy cityscapes accompanied by songs from Bobby “Blue” Bland. It’s all vaguely reminiscent of “Four Brothers,” which ended up being a much better movie than it had any right to be. So there’s some reason for optimism as we meet Shawn MacArthur (Channing Tatum), a street counterfeiter with a heart of gold (a fact demonstrated by his opening the door for an old lady on the subway, then waiting 10 minutes for a sea of opportunistic New Yorkers to pass).
Shawn isn’t very good at his gig – he tries selling copies of something that sounds like Harry Potter and the Magic Hippopotamus – so it’s not very surprising when veteran hustler Harvey (Terrence Howard) sends his henchmen to shoo the new boy away from prime real estate. However, his crew gets more than it bargained for when Shawn demonstrates a gift for knocking people on their a*s. A later chance encounter leads Harvey to offer Shawn a chance to make some real money as a bare knuckle fighter. Not having a hell of a lot in terms of actual job prospects, Shawn agrees.
It’d be easy to hate “Fighting” on general principles: that *great* title, the casting of Channing “Step Up/Step Up: 2 the Streets” Tatum in the starring role, the dread that comes with having to sit through another frigging fight movie. This is a hard flick to dislike, however. It’s not a great film, or even a particularly good one (and much inferior to “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,” Montiel’s previous effort), but every so often you catch glimpses of a better movie behind the simplistic structure and formulaic plot.
The caliber of performance definitely helps. Howard’s Harvey been at the bottom of the heap for so long his desperation for the big score is palpable, but he still balances the character’s pathetic current state with his lost sense of purpose. Luis Guzman also stands out as a rival boss, while “The Shield’s” Brian White is appropriately overconfident as Shawn’s Big Boss: a professional MMA fighter with ties to Shawn’s past. And finally, Tatum may have finally found a role that accentuates his more…taciturn qualities.
But there’s a lot to shake your head at, as well. For example, we know Shawn is from Alabama (much like Tatum himself, which I guess made it easier for him to “find his motivation”), and that he left after getting into a fight with his wrestling coach father. He must have spent the intervening decade or so in suspended animation, as there’s no way someone with his apparent lack of street smarts could maintain such an impressive physique eating out of trash cans. And while Shawn is pretty bad at hustling, he’s really not all that great at fighting either. He ekes out a lucky win in his first bout and relies more on what seems like bursts of uncontrollable rage for the rest. Between this and his stormy relationship with pop, the guy obviously has some serious anger issues. Maybe a more interesting film would have Shawn examining the root causes underlying his fury and coming to terms with them in an adult fashion?
Nah, probably not. “Fighting” is impossible to dislike entirely. It’s occasionally entertaining yet maddening at the same time, like a big, dumb dog that won’t stop licking your face who you belatedly realize was licking its balls for the preceding 10 minutes.