“Fighting” is constantly torn between ineptitude and blandness. I’m shocked that director Dito Montiel’s first film, “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” is acclaimed and that this looks like the work of someone that’s never even seen a movie before let alone made one. Aside from the film’s technical ineptitude, the story feels stale and that anything that may have been interesting at one point was jettisoned in favor of dull characters, empty relationships, and sloppy brawls.
The film starts out on a promising note as far as its theme is concerned: hustling. You see hustlers on the street corners selling bootlegs, knock-offs, and over-priced goods to hapless consumers. There’s not a lot of money in it and it’s a day-to-day survival. That’s a world I wanted to see explored. Sadly, “Fighting” thinks its strength lies in, well, fighting. Street hustler Shawn MacArthur (Channing Tatum) knows how to throw some punches and this leads fellow hustler Harvey Boarden (Terrence Howard) to try and set MacArthur up in some amateur fights that apparently rich people absolutely love for no apparent reason. I guess they couldn’t get UFC tickets.
And “Fighting” does try for authenticity in its fights by emphasizing holds, throws, and what you tend to see in Ultimate Fighting as opposed to martial arts or any discernible fighting skill. However, that authenticity is disappointing because we can’t see why MacArthur is the best or even deserves to win (beyond “wanting it more”, whatever that means). At best he seems lucky and while that does keep the question alive of whether he’ll win the Big Fight against Douchebag Rival (Brian White), it’s unrewarding and it doesn’t make us root for Shawn. By the time we see MacArthur training (and it’s the only time we see it), he’s doing it shirtless on an empty subway car and I wondered if he was going to start singing a soft rock love song. When we finally get to the fights, they’re dull, haphazard affairs as Montiel does his best to keep up with the blows, alternating between long shots and nauseating hand-held, shaky close-ups, tying it together with lethargic pacing and rarely letting the audience feel the hits.
There is just no place “Fighting” succeeds. Tatum is a personality vacuum and along with the usually reliable Terrence Howard, the two actors just chew all their lines of dialogue. Their stories are predictable as they struggle not by their own faults as much as they made the mistake of putting their trust in a bad guy who betrayed them (MacArthur at least feels some guilt for his past but it’s a hollow gesture as the exposition makes it clear that he’s really not to blame). The mandatory love story only compounds the tiresome overall narrative as Tatum’s feelings for single mom Zulay (Zulay Henao) don’t seem to add up to more than “You’re attractive, I’m attractive but shy, let’s talk about our feelings and our pasts before we have attractive-people sex.”
By the end, “Fighting” feels like a hustle where we’ve bought a knock-off an already mediocre 80s movie and we can’t really complain since we should have known better.