Its generic and lazy title notwithstanding, “Fighting” is almost a good movie. There’s more to it than you’d expect — you’d expect it to be a meathead drama about an underground fight club. And, OK, it is about that. But it also tries, albeit only semi-successfully, to tell a legitimate story about legitimate characters. Consider it a thinking man’s answer to “Never Back Down.”
Set in the less glamorous streets of New York, the story concerns Shawn MacArthur (Channing Tatum), whom we meet as he sells umbrellas, bootlegged DVDs, and other merchandise on the sidewalk. A skirmish with a hooligan leads to fisticuffs, and Shawn emerges the victor, which impresses one Harvey Boarden (Terrence Howard), a honey-voiced hustler who just happens (or maybe not) to have been nearby to witness the fracas.
Harvey makes his living in a variety of ways, most of them extralegal, but the most lucrative is finding young men such as Shawn who are good with their fists. You’d never know it, but there are high-stakes fights being held in the basements of some of New York’s trendiest nightclubs, with screaming, testosterone-driven, businessmen placing bets and the fighters earning thousands of dollars a pop. Shawn — who it turns out was once a promising wrestler at an Alabama university before something went awry — is glad to become one of the gladiators.
Two characters now become necessary. One is a love interest. She is Zulay (Zulay Henao), a fierce, beautiful Latina who works as a waitress and has a young daughter. The two of them live with Zulay’s grandmother in a tiny apartment. The lack of privacy leads to cute, authentic scenes like Zulay and Shawn trying to have a quiet moment together in the building’s stairwell before abuela interrupts and says it’s time for Shawn to go home.
The other necessary figure is an enemy. Here the film isn’t trying very hard. It’s a fellow named Evan (Brian White), who knew Shawn back at college in Alabama and has miraculously, coincidentally, bumped into him again in New York. He gives Shawn some grief when they first see each other — enough for us to know that the film will eventually come down to a fight between the two of them. Meh.
Channing Tatum and the film’s director, Dito Montiel, have worked together before, on Montiel’s well-made autobiographical drama “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.” Montiel, who rewrote “Fighting” from a screenplay by Robert Munic, retains his indie sensibilities here, once again nudging Tatum (usually stuck in pretty-boy roles) to flex his acting muscles, too. Shawn and Harvey’s relationship parallels that of Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo in “Midnight Cowboy,” and New York still has that grimy feel. Montiel also shoots the fight sequences fairly straightforwardly, without much chaos. He clearly has not intended to make an action film, but a character drama.
That being the case, it’s unfortunate that the character-drama elements aren’t better. My suspicion is that Munic’s script was more meatheaded (he was at one point associated with “Never Back Down,” too, possibly for the same screenplay) and that when Montiel added the grittier, more dramatic components, he simply didn’t do enough to flesh them out. The movie isn’t bad — surely it’s better than it might have been — but it’s a case where instead of doing something truly interesting, Montiel has done something only mildly diverting.
C+ (1 hr., 45 min.; )