Fighting is an atypical underdog story

by Glen Baity

It might be a story about a guy who pulls himself out of the gutter with his fists, but Fighting is no Rocky rehash.

Ignore the trailer, which showcases a bare-chested Channing Tatum shadowboxing on a lonely subway car. This isn’t exactly a story about a guy searching for glory in the ring. Tatum plays Shawn, a flat-broke Manhattanite who sells counterfeit junk to tourists. He isn’t all that interested in fighting, but selling knock-off iPods and non-existent books like Harry Potter and the Hippopotamus isn’t paying the rent. When two-bit hustler Harvey (Terrence Howard) offers to help him make an easy $5,000 in the world of underground brawling, Shawn accepts. Fighting, as it turns out, makes for easy money, and Shawn keeps coming back as the purses keep growing. Along the way, he falls for lovely Zulay (Zulay Valez), and tries to keep his new dirtbag friends at arm’s length. Writer-director Dito Montiel has made a film of surprising depth in Fighting, andmuch is owed to its lead character. Shawn is interesting: Even at theheight of his short career as a fighter-for-hire, he’s not in love withthe accolades, the rush of combat or any of the trappings of his newsuccess. He just fights because… what else is he going to do? Thisgives the tried-and-true underdog story a fresh angle, and hanging iton Tatum’s performance proves to be a smart move. He’s likeable andbelievable in the lead role, exuding quiet confidence and aimlessnessin equal measure. You want the guy to get what he wants, but you alsoknow he has to figure out what that is first. He reminded me a bit of Zach Gilford’s beaten-down quarterback in the “Friday Night Lights” TV series, only cockier. If Fighting hasa major fault, it’s that it falls back on a pretty standard structure(bout, drama, bigger bout, more drama, rinse, repeat) culminating inthe clash of two old rivals. The film cheapens itself a bit by settingup a one-dimensional villain in Evan (Brian White), Shawn’s old nemesisfrom his days as an Alabama collegewrestler, who just happens to have ended up in the same NYC zip code,not to mention the same underground boxing circuit. Indeed, the entirestory of how Shawn ended up in New York feels like an afterthought —after a falling out with his father, he left college and the South toget lost in the big city — and it’s one of Fighting’s only weak points. ButMontiel compensates by giving his film a clever script and staging somegripping action sequences. These fights hardly seem choreographed atall — they’re messy, brutal and look more like riots waiting to happenthan actual matches. I haven’t seen scrapes like this since Fight Club. Thewhole film takes place amid the noise and clutter of modern New YorkCity, and kudos to Montiel and his director of photography, StefanCzapsky, for really capturing the essence of city life. The crowdedstreets, the music, the storefronts full of cheap knick-knacks and theback alleys full of graffiti and refuse — this isn’t a tame, sanitizedGotham. The city is a character in itself, the real backbone to thefilm, and the main reason that there’s more to Fighting than the fighting.