I’m always a bit wary of the fledgling director who adapts a film based upon his very own autobiographical novel and becomes the “next big thing.” Such is the case with Dito Montiel, who was the toast of Sundance for 2006’s A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, an imperfect and mercurial film that forced its way into audience’s favor through an unrestrained authenticity. Still, no matter how acclaimed or entertaining this debut film happened to be, Saints was a project that Montiel, undoubtedly, had been crafting in his own mind for many years before the cameras started rolling. So, there was always a substantial chance that any follow-up effort, which would carry a much shorter gestational period, could ring hollow. With Fighting, Montiel isn’t mentally or emotionally invested in the subject matter (you know, fighting) at hand, so this project lacks the raw vision of Saints. To make matters worse, Fighting even downplays its own fighting scenes, thanks to a screenplay that’s co-written by Montiel and Robert Munic. Surrounding each of the film’s four fights is a crapload of unintelligible dialogue and conversational inertia that would take out Chev Chelios in a synthetic heartbeat. Really, this is a highly effective method of giving the finger to the film’s intended audience of adrenaline junkies.
With a title like Fighting, it’s difficult to expect muchat all, and that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with a little exploitation flick, which is what one presumes from a film that has marketed itself to the same young adult and teenage male audience as 2008’s mixed martial arts sausage fest, Never Back Down. As far as similarities go, Fighting also centers upon a brooding (and strapping) young lad with obvious daddy issues who rises to the top of his respective underground fighting scene, but the two films have little else in common. Fighting favors lingering scenes of one-on-one dialogue, and the obligatory fights are shot almost as an afterthought. So, even though there is no shortage of flying fists, these scenes are shot in an almost claustrophobic manner and with editing cuts that prevent the viewer from actually enjoying a spectator’s vantage point before, you know, the talking takes over again. In contrast, for all its unintentional homoerotic hilarity, Never Back Down never shortchanged its battles and kept its dialogue confined to throwaway conversations that functioned as perfunctory interludes between fights. Perhaps the most important comparison here is the motivations of each film’s characters to enter into combat. Whereas Never Back Down’s contenders aimed for machismo and elevated social status, Fighting’s adversaries are only in it for the money. More of that hollowness thing, comin’ right at ya.
Young, low-level hustler Shawn (Channing Tatum) sells counterfeit iPods and Harry Potter books on the sidewalks of midtown Manhattan. We learn that Shawn is a former wrestler who fled Alabama for some mysterious reason that, once revealed, makes absolutely no sense in the context of the film. Shawn, barely staying alive in these means streets that Montiel has dredged up from the 1970s and 80s and pulled into the present, keeps his head down and minds his own illegal business. One fateful day, a slightly higher-up hustler named Harvey (Terrence Howard), sends a few underlings to pillage the “business” of Shawn, who promptly beats their offending asses down. Harvey is suitably impressed and soon becomes the Ratso Rizzo to Shawn’s Joe Buck. Soon, Shawn has become a major contender in the underground street fighting scene. Here, no rules exist, and the stakes get higher with each fight until Shawn faces off with an opponent for a $100,000 jackpot. This is sort of semi-believable, since Shawn inexplicably resembles a brick shithouse; he’s in awfully good physical shape for a pseudo-street vendor who flops in a shitty hotel and eats total crap, if anything at all. Through his constant downward glance and mumbled dialogue, we’re supposed to find Shawn mysterious and equally terrifying when his polite nature and soft-voiced Southern accent give way, at a moment’s notice, to tempestuous displays of anger and pounding fists. Mercifully, we are spared any training montages, since Shawn is a “natural” fighting talent. As a trade off, however, Montiel requires his viewers to suffer through a forced courtship with an obligatory love interest, Zulay (Zulay Henao), a young mother who struggles to get by as a waitress. To further complicate matters, Shawn, Harvey, and Zulay are each hiding deep, dark secrets from their past. The third act’s big reveals are unimpressive and only serve to add unneeded drama to the plot.
All of this self-important seriousness becomes a major problem for this film. Whereas Never Back Down took pleasure in wallowing through clichés, and bromantic allusions, Fighting, quite simply, thinks it’s too good for that of thing. Instead Montiel, who never put in the effort to avoid the genre’s stereotypes, just ignores the clichés that lumber about like an army of slow-moving zombies invading an art film. Instead of what could have been an entertaining B-movie, Montiel gives his audience a damn character study that is, at once, overcomplicated and unsatisfying. Characters’ back stories are left largely incomplete and make little sense. Actually, the only character here who receives any sort of multi-dimensional treatment is New York City, but we’re talking about the kind of early 1980s Big Apple that leaves a gritty taste. This version of present-day New York exists in a parallel universe that never produced vigilantes like Bernie Goetz, never elected Rudy Guiliani as mayor, and never saw the Disneyfication of Times Square. Of course, this is familiar ground for Montiel, who still seems to be in a Saints mindset, but this is supposed to be damn fighting movie, for fuck’s sake.
With this film’s script, we’re lucky to receive even passable acting here. Channing Tatum is sort of what would happen if Josh Hartnett’s brooding, unflinching, and utterly inexpressive ways mated with half of Ryan Reynolds’ abdominal muscles. Terrance Howard is no stranger to hustling and pimping, but it remains a mystery why his character speaks so maddeningly sloooowly as if he’s got a mouth full of extra-crunchy peanut butter. Multiple characters devolve into vastly inferior impressions of Christopher Walken. Perhaps most bizarre here is the appearance of Roger Guenveur Smith as a financier and referree named Jack Dancing, who kicks off the final fight by shouting, “In the words. Of that late. Great. American poet Marvin Gaye. Let’s. Get. It. Onnn!” After that little gem, Montiel launches back into the jumpy, handheld camerawork that produces more nausea than do the punches themselves and feels like a damn video game. Towards the end of each smackdown, I kept expecting to hear a sinister voice come out of nowhere and order, “Finish him.” If only.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.