Monday, April 27, 2009

Movie Review: Fighting

Fighting **
Directed By:
Dito Montiel.
Written By: Robert Munic & Dito Montiel.
Written By: Channing Tatum (Shawn MacArthur), Terrence Howard (Harvey Boarden), Zulay Henao (Zulay Valez), Michael Rivera (Ajax), Flaco Navaja (Ray Ray), Peter Anthony Tambakis (Z), Luis Guzmán (Martinez), Anthony DeSando (Christopher Anthony), Roger Guenveur Smith (Jack Dancing), Brian J. White (Evan Hailey).

Fighting is a movie that never really decides what it wants to be. At times, it feels like it wants to be a gritty, realistic movie about the mean streets of New York. At times, it seems it wants to be a B movie about the world of underground fighting. At times it seems it wants to be a romance. Or a story about racism. Or a story about the legacies passed down by our parents. Or many other things. The movie never coheres into one movie. So while in isolation, many of the scenes in the film “work” by themselves, they seem like part of the same movie.

The movie stars Channing Tatum as Shawn MacArthur, a kid from the South who for reasons that will remain cloudy until the end of the movie, has ended up by himself in New York City. One day on the street, he is forced into a fight, and handedly wins. Harvey Boarden (Terrence Howard) sees him, and thinks he can use him. Harvey is a hustler and a low level conman, who always has at least a few scams going at the same time. In Shawn, he sees a good looking, college educated kid who he can put in underground fights and make some quick money. He knows the people who run these types of things, and although they don’t like him very much, they know a good angle when they see one, and Shawn is a good angle. He quickly makes a name for himself in this world, and continues to get offered bigger and bigger fights, for more and more money.

Meanwhile two other characters enter Shawn’s life. The first is Evan Hailey (Brian White), who is known as the reigning king of these types of fights. Shawn and Evan have a past that Evan refers to obliquely – something about Shawn’s father who used to be Evan’s wrestling coach. The other character is Zulay (Zulay Valez), a Puerto Rican waitress a club that Shawn frequents that Shawn falls for at first sight. He is persistent with her, even though she keeps giving him the brush off. She has her reasons. She has a young daughter and an old grandmother to care for, and doesn’t have the time to be jerked around. But Shawn seems nice and genuine, so we know she will eventually give in.

The director and co-writer of the movie is Dito Montiel, whose debut film A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, was a strong film in the vein of Scorsese’s Mean Streets. Here, he returns to the New York neighbors that he knows so well, and the film has a ring of authenticity in the way it looks at the city. The tourists see the lights and the glamour, but not everything that goes on underneath.

Unfortunately, Montiel cannot bring this same authenticity to his characters. Tatum has turned out to be a surprising good young actor, and there is an openness and honesty in his performance that we want to trust. But because he holds back the story of what exactly happened between him and his father, we’re not sure about him (the secret when it comes out is a huge letdown). Howard is an actor who is incapable of being boring on screen, yet a wonder if he was bored making this movie. He has always had a slightly nasally, high pitched voice, but here he seems to be exaggerating that voice to absurd extremes – at times it sounds like he’s trying to do a Truman Capote impression. He certainly doesn’t sound like he’s from Chicago like he claims. Having said that, when Howard’s on screen, at least you’re not bored. Newcomer Zulay Valez is gorgeous, and the camera loves her, but she is undermined by the screenplay that is constantly forcing her to hold back information, so at times she seems stilted. Brian White would be more at home in one of those lower rent fighting movies – like last year’s Never Back Down – as he never even tries to make Evan into a realistic character. He’s all bravado. Talented actor like Luis Guzman and Roger Guenveur Smith are completely wasted in their roles, and in Smith’s case, made to look like talentless hacks.

The fight scenes are handled well. For the most part, they have a rawness to them that feels more real than most fight scenes in the movies. The fights are messy, and somewhat clumsy, and they appear to hurt –at least as they are going on.

Fighting never really does cohere into a complete movie though. There are times when it works, but the scenes do not flow into each other naturally. They sit there on the screen until the next one comes on. Fighting is certainly not a terrible movie, but it just isn’t very good either. Which is a disappointment because Dito Montiel is a talented director. This time though, his film just isn’t good enough.

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