I owe an apology to anyone who has come here lately actually looking for my own film commentary. In the past month or so, I've had about ten reviews published that I have yet to post here. So for the next few days, I'm going to post them in between the Play It Again entries (which I've been incredibly happy with, BTW).
First is my review of "Fighting," which left me shocked as I had been fully expecting to hate it.
I primarily choose to see “Fighting” this week so I could star this review with a lamentation about the need to fondly remember “Never Back Down.” But then something strange happened that made a mockery of my prejudgment: I kind of liked this film. Scratch that; I greatly enjoyed and even admired it.
I’d seen those ads which market it as a clunky “boy conquers world” movie, but thankfully, that’s not what I saw. Although about illegal street fighting, the subject matter belies the film’s calm, its leisurely pacing and willingness to tell a decent story. There are countless opportunities to screw a film like this up, and the filmmakers deftly avoid all of them.
Channing Tatum stars as Shawn, an Alabama college wrestling star now hustling on the streets of New York City. He’s the sort of guy who sells $20 iPods and books with titles like Harry Potter vs. The Hippopotamus. Shawn meets Harvey (Terrence Howard), another, much better hustler. Harvey saw Shawn come out on top of a scuffle one day and sees dollar signs: Shawn will participate in street fights, the kind held in alleyways adjacent to Korean grocery stores and t-shirt shops, and they’ll split the money. This isn’t even like the mixed martial arts matches that have gained so much recent popularity; in these, slamming your opponent’s head through a window is a perfectly acceptable way to end the match, and the participants must have great dental coverage because no one wears or requests a mouth guard.
Of course there’s a formula to this sort of plot. We know that Sean will come out on top in the end, that he’ll eventually secure massive winnings, that he’ll successfully woo the cocktail waitress (Zulay Valez) with the adorable daughter, that no blow will be so hard as to bruise what I’m told is a very handsome face But it’s neat how writer/director Dito Montiel makes the cliched parts seem so casual and organic, and how he ignores many others. Expecting a training sequence? So was I, but Sean already knows how to fight well, so it ain’t there. Certain that there will be a fight where Sean takes a brutal beating that he has to avenge later on? Think again, because he doesn’t.
The actual fighting scenes are well-shot and even tense on a couple of occasions, but the film’s lift is in its characters, which are treated more like real people than mere functions of the script. Sean’s a simple man who’s sort of nice to the point a hustler/street fighter can be, lacking a the delicate ego that makes many of these sorts of protagonists difficult to stomach. When he buys that waitress a dinner and a stuffed animal, it seems sweet and sincere, as if an uncomplicated romance without vulgarity was still possible in contemporary cinema.
Terrence Howard gives another one of his unimpeachable performances here as a hustler who seems like he isn’t all there, but actually is, his spirit crushed by a sad resignation to life’s troubles. Here was another chance for “Fighting” to fail, but it didn’t. I was surprised at how without much flash or insistence, the film won me over, gaining my respect by just being enjoyable, with characters I wanted to succeed and scenes that made me ignore my wristwatch.