There is something abnormally aggressive and conversational being deployed in the street-fight drama Fighting. It's the second film directed and co-written by New York native Dito Montiel and, like his nostalgic debut A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, it has a great love for NYC location shooting.
This film tells a very familiar tale of a talented fighter discovered by an opportunistic but ultimately good-hearted manager/trainer and shoved into a world of money, greed, and empty glory that he may not be prepared for. But Never Back Down, this is not. The moment Shawn (Channing Tatum) enters the screen, it's obvious he is not wise nor even very intelligent for that matter. He's lean and muscular but he doesn't have it over on anyone, and this is partially how he comes under the wing of Harvey Boarden (Terrence Howard), a street hustler who has connections to the world of private boxing. There's a hint of imperialism in the way the very white Shawn squares-off against four fighters, beginning with a brawny Eastern European type and ending with Evan (Brian J. White), a black, brutal fighter who Shawn's father taught and loved more than his son. Article continues below
The script by Montiel and Robert Munic has a strange, intimate rhythm to its dialogue. Every conversation goes on just a bit longer than you think it will. At moments, the conversations are so clipped and unexpected that one might think Andrew Bujalski did a rewrite. In its structure, however, it's all business. The aimless, endless insinuations of Shawn's father and "an incident" are only overwhelmed in apathy by the sweet but feckless romance that blooms between Shawn and Zulay (Zulay Henao), a single mother and waitress who shares an apartment with her grandmother.
Fighting oddly feels like a film that is, itself, fighting to break free of its own contrivances and conventions. It never lags and it supplies plenty of action, but its trajectory and twists are clear from the outset. For all the everyday moments and sights of NYC that it picks up with warmth and familiarity, it drowns out its naturalness with a constant, egregious thumping of here-we-go rap anthems and throwback R&B. Any momentum it builds it diffuses with an overplayed note (Zulay's grandmother) or an awkward moment of needless melodrama. It can't find its allegiance, and its indecision bleeds into the viewer.
For whatever emphasis is given to Shawn's character and his story, Montiel's film is really about Harvey, and it's hard to take your eyes off of Howard's performance. Harvey's slow crawl to the knowledge that he's not cut out for New York City nor the fighting business is a powerful realization that is shortchanged here, but Howard's syrupy voice and suave presence makes Harvey a much more fascinating creation than the pride-and-glory two-step of Shawn's arc. Playing Fagin to a trio of hoods, Harvey is the sort of glorious, all-or-nothing loser that would be prime game for someone like Abel Ferrara or John Cassavetes. In Fighting, however, he is outmatched by the rigid mechanics of plot.