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Fighting
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by Peter Sobczynski

"A Guide To Recognizing Your Crappy Underground Boxing Movies"
2 stars

Every few years or so, Hollywood determines that what we really want to see is a melodrama set within the seedy world of underground fighting in which some poor-but-noble chump shrugs off blows that would probably kill a normal person before eventually decimating his opponent just in time to move on to the next scene or the end credits. One of the best of these films, for those of you interested in researching the subject, was “Hard Times,” Walter Hill’s electrifying 1975 directorial debut in which Charles Bronson played a Depression-era migrant worker who found more success working with his fists than with his hands. The latest entry in this particular subgenre, hot on the heels of last year’s utterly ridiculous “Never Back Down,” is the right-to-the-point “Fighting” and to say that it is no “Hard Times” is pretty much a given--after all, director Dito Montiel (making his follow-up to the unaccountably acclaimed “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints”) is no Walter Hill and hunk-du-jour Channing Tatum is certainly no Charles Bronson. However, the flaws go much further than that and the result is a film that could only possibly entertain two very specific groups of people--those who simply want to watch Channing Tatum and those who want to watch Channing Tatum get smacked around in a series of increasingly absurd bare-knuckle brawls.

Tatum plays Shawn McArthur, a poor but dopey slab of beef with a dark past who earns a meager living on the streets of New York selling fake Harry Potter books until one fateful day when he is busted by Zulay (Zulay Henao), a beautiful young woman with enough street smarts to realize that a Harry Potter book that has typos in the title is probably not much of a bargain (although she apparently doesn’t notice this until after forking over her $20), and attacked by a couple of young punks who try to make off with his money. Later that night, Shawn runs into the punks again and meets their ringleader, low-level hustler Harvey Borden (Terrence Howard). As it turns out, Harvey has a few vague connections with the lucrative underground fighting circuit and, liking the cut of Shawn’s jab, offers to arrange a fight for him that will pay the winner $5000 and the loser nothing. After an anxious 10 seconds of the soul, Shawn agrees and when he quickly decimates his first opponent (with an uncredited assist from a nearby drinking fountain), he becomes a sensation and everything begins looking up for him--he is making money hand over bloodied fist and wooing Zulay, who just happens to waitress at the club where the entire underground fight industry hangs out.

Alas, the powers in charge (represented here by Luis Guzman and some guy who thinks he has the Christopher Walken part)begin pressuring Harvey to convince his protégé to throw an especially rich match against, amazingly enough, an especially fearsome fighter (Brian J. White) who just happens to be a part of Shawn‘s aforementioned dark past. Double alas, Shawn is the kind of noble bare-knuckle street fight and refuses to take a dive until he discovers some shocking secrets about the people around him that he thought were looking out for him. Will Shawn stay true to his convictions? Will he sell out for the easy money? Will the screenplay go to torturous lengths to make sure the story has a happy and upbeat ending no matter what? Don’t worry--I wouldn’t dream of revealing such details to those of you who have never actually seen a movie before.

With its ridiculously on-the-nose title promising all sorts of gerund-based action and the even-more-ridiculous trailers trying to position it as an unholy blend of “Fight Club” and “Step Up,” Fighting” looks and sounds like one of the dumbest things to hit screens since “Fast and Furious” (which was only a couple of weeks ago, I realize) and if it had stayed on that level, it might have made for a vaguely diverting 90-odd minutes of fenderhead cinema. The trouble with “Fighting” is that it is an achingly dumb movie that has somehow convinced itself that it is smarter than it actually is and the weird schism between the two that develops as a result make it more excruciating than entertaining. Even though the screenplay is not the sort of thing that one is supposed to analyze in too much detail in a film like this--even the aforementioned “Hard Times” might face trouble under such scrutiny--what co-writers Montiel and Robert Munic have offered up here is a cobbled-together collection of fight film clichés that are so creaky that they were considered passé back when Edward G. Robinson was making “Kid Galahad.“ To make matters worse, all of the key conflicts keep recurring after they were seemingly solved in what can only be described as the narrative equivalent of going around the same block twice in an unsuccessful search for a parking space. In an effort to add a layer of reality to the proceedings (or at least to cover up the story deficiencies), Montiel has evidently allowed his actors the freedom to improvise within their scenes. Unfortunately, while Montiel may have been hoping that this approach would remind some viewers of the likes of “Mean Streets,” it will probably remind them more of a failed improv exercise in an acting class that ends with the teacher saying “Now Peter, I don’t understand what you were going for there at all.”

As for the rest of “Fighting, the actors seem bored (after showing some dramatic promise in “Stop-Loss,” Tatum is just a blank here, newcomer Henao isn’t asked to do anything other than look gorgeous and even the usually lively Luis Guzman in coasting on fumes), the pace is incredibly draggy and the attempts to capture the wild recklessness of anything-goes fighting result only in a series of messy sequences in which spinning cameras and whiplash edits try and fail to create some degree of excitement lacking in the actual material. In fact, the only interesting aspect to the film, albeit in a train wreck sort of way, is the performance turned in by Terrence Howard in a role that is essentially a lesser version of his Oscar-nominated turn a few years ago in “Hustle & Flow.” Perhaps bummed that his career didn‘t quite get the boost that many assumed it would receive, he has chosen to turn in a weirdly mannered variation of that earlier performance that is just so odd to behold that I found myself reminded of the equally bizarre work that Marlon Brando did in the series of lesser movies that he found himself working on before making his comeback in “The Godfather.” Unfortunately, not even this helps the film very much because the entire thing comes across as a private joke that not even Howard himself finds especially funny. In fact, for much of the running time of “Fighting,” he looks as though he were hoping and praying that Don Cheadle would magically appear halfway through and take over for him. My guess is that many audience members will feel the same way.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=18105&reviewer=389
originally posted: 04/24/09 14:00:00
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USA
  24-Apr-2009 (PG-13)
  DVD: 25-Aug-2009

UK
  15-May-2009 (15)

Australia
  27-Aug-2009 (M)



[trailer] Trailer


Directed by
  Dito Montiel

Written by
  Dito Montiel
  Robert Munic

Cast
  Terrence Howard
  Channing Tatum
  Zulay Henao
  Luis Guzmán
  Cung Le
  Brian White



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