We’ve all seen movies that lied and told us they were special, only to reveal themselves as empty and disposable—see The Proposal. (Actually, don’t.) But what about a movie that pretends to be summer schlock, only to surprise as one of the strongest and sturdiest of the season?
Such is the perverted delight of seeing Fighting, the underdog story of an underground street fighter in the underbelly of New York City. In a movie climate that panders to the lowest common denominator, the television ads and trailer showed hyperkinetic knockdowns set to rap music and baritone narration (“Now.” Pause. “Every fight.” Pause. “Brings him closer.” And so on.) The laws of box office returns also dictated the admittedly direct but misleading title. (If the film does well in America, copycat monikers like Chasing or Exploding may follow.)
Fighting isn’t really about fighting, at least not the kind with knuckles and bloody noses. It is about the way a big city makes you feel small, and a crowded nightclub reminds you that you’re alone. It’s about finding a reason to get up in the morning, and the strength to make it through the day, and someone to spend the night with. They should have called it Surviving.
The people trying to survive in Fighting are wrestling reject Shawn MacArthur (Channing Tatum), broken hustler Harvey Boarden (Terrence Howard, using his higher registers) and burdened waitress Zulay Valez (newcomer Zulay Henao). For different reasons, they all live in New York, dreams deferred until they can make the rent. Shawn doesn’t have to worry about that—he sleeps on a park bench, his clothes in a duffel bag.
Writer-director Dito Montiel creates a strong sense of place for his troika—no easy task with a city as photographed as the Big Apple. His New York feels familiar but foreign, modern but worn, built by men but inhabited by animals. He captures the untamed energy of a Brooklyn night and the ironic quiet of a midnight subway car, roaring along rusted rails past abandoned buildings. This is not the sunny yuppie-paradise version of New York in The Proposal or the middle-class traffic hub of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. The people in Montiel’s Gotham have pretty faces that hide ugly pasts, and neat clothes that hide messy identities.
Channing Tatum, with his thick nose and small ears, has the appearance and the emotional range of a brick wall—to get angry, he just gets loud. Fighting gives him top billing over Terrence Howard, a consistently brilliant and underemployed actor. Here, Howard’s performance is too mannered, but still enjoyable. The real gem is Zulay Henao, whose onscreen beauty is irresistible. Never mind that she can act—she reminds you why the cinematic close-up was invented: to create sculpture from a cheekbone, and a masterpiece from a smile.
So don’t let the ads fool you. Fighting has everything going for it—compelling characters, a unique vision of New York, and Zulay Henao. And, of course, some knuckles and bloody noses.