Like the Furious franchise, Fighting purports to offer us an insider's view of an illicit underground subculture. Here, it's the world of bare-knuckles brawling, whose competitors fight not out of emasculated rage against an overly commodified society like the angry young men of Fight Club, but simply because they enjoy it, or because there's money to be made. The latter is the impetus for Shawn MacArthur (Saints alum Channing Tatum), a romanticized vision of the cornpone rube trying to make it in the big city who, in one of the more fanciful notions here, is first shown eking out his fleabag-motel existence by selling counterfeit Harry Potter books on a Rockefeller Center sidewalk.
Never mind that you've never seen anyone as chiseled and freshly scrubbed as Tatum hocking black-market goods on the streets of Manhattan: Where Saints carried such a vivid sense of place that you felt as if Montiel knew every one of those humid Astoria alleyways firsthand, Fighting seems to unfold in a New York learned primarily from other movies—specifically those of the pre-Giuliani grindhouse era—no matter that the setting is present-day. When Shawn, whose pugilistic skills are spotted early on by a ticket-scalper-cum-fight-promoter (Terrence Howard), does battle against one Asian challenger, the bout takes place in a gaudy, orientalized hotel room (complete with transsexual hostesses) that seems on loan from Year of the Dragon.
Montiel seems incapable of making an ordinary bad movie—he's too much of a willful eccentric, with a casual disregard for things like backstory, character development, and narrative tension and a high indulgence for eccentric performers like Howard (here playing an unholy cross between Ratso Rizzo and Mr. Miyagi) and Tatum (who may be the most sullen and inexpressive leading man this side of Josh Hartnett). If Montiel was going to fail, it was bound to be spectacular, and Fighting bears that out in spades. The discursive style that managed to suit Saints is all wrong for a movie that needs the stripped-down engine of an American International Pictures quickie. For most of Fighting, Montiel denies us such basic information as how long Shawn has been in New York and why he came there. This may also be the first movie about underground fighting in which there isn't so much as a single scene of the police busting up a brawl—or anyone even worrying that the police might bust up a brawl—and the only movie about fighting of any kind without so much as a single training sequence.
There's no shortage of other clichés, from the former high school rival against whom Shawn ultimately has to prove himself to the inevitable fight-fixing quandary, but Montiel is too high-minded to really embrace any of them, and the movie never works up a pulpy head of steam. It's like an exploitation movie that thinks it's an art movie, only there's no art to be found.
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