A one-way ticket to Palookaville, “Fighting” stars up-and-comer Channing Tatum as a kid with a past and a wicked right, and resurrects two old Hollywood standbys — ’40s fight dramas and graffiti-splattered, pre-Giuliani New York. This helps make the surroundings in director Dito Montiel’s ham-fisted drama feel as familiar as its plot, although Terrence Howard’s apparent Christopher Walken impersonation qualifies as something new. Pic’s loser-triumphant plotline should leave auds at ringside moderately happy.
Montiel (who debuted with the 2006 fest fave “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints”) is back on familiar turf in New York, although it’s less the New York of today than the one in which he grew up. That makes it feel no more authentic than if it had been created on a Hollywood lot (the midtown locations chosen must have caused some headaches).
Around these oh-so-mean streets lumbers Alabama boy Shawn MacArthur (Tatum), who has the physical mannerisms and disoriented look of a homeless guy: an ill-fitting wifebeater, an inability to keep anything buttoned and a blanket full of books he tries to sell down the street from Radio City Music Hall. There, he’s robbed by a pack of street wretches under the dubious employ of Harvey Boarden (Howard).
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Watching Shawn cold-cock his Fagin’s gang, Harvey recognizes that Shawn is a talented fighter and — imagine the coincidence — Harvey is connected to an underground, bare-knuckle fighting network that involves Wall Street knuckleheads, Korean transvestites, Tong warlords, designer-knockoff merchants and Bronx bodega owners. The whole city, essentially. It takes all of three fights — one of which he wins by banging a Russian’s head against a drinking fountain — for Shawn to become the biggest illegal attraction in town.
Of course, the illicit powers that be want Shawn to take a dive — against extreme-fighting star Evan Hailey (Brian White), who was a member of Shawn’s father’s wrestling team back in Alabama (imagine the coincidence). They hate each other. Take a dive? We’ll see about that.
For all the utter phoniness of “Fighting” — the cockeyed, faux-verite shooting, the lurches in storytelling, the lack of character development, a contrived crisis between Shawn and his would-be girlfriend Zulay (Zulay Henao) and Tatum’s dopey-charming thing–“Fighting’s” not so bad. The Walken influence on Howard wasn’t a joke — he plays Harvey as too civilized, too gentle, a guy who enunciates everything a bit too clearly, and all the while you’re wondering when he’s going to blow like a manhole cover. Even if he never does, he imposes a sense of suspense. Harvey’s nemeses — played by Anthony DeSando, Luiz Guzman and Roger Guenveur Smith (who’s also doing Walken!) — are one-dimensional by contrast, though White’s Evan is delightfully hateful.
The fights are edge-of-your-seat kinetic, and coordinator Mike Gunther has worked a lot of traditional wrestling moves into Shawn’s technique. He may look like a bum, but he fights like a college boy.
Production values are adequate.