Boxing used to be called “the sweet science.” It was considered one of the more rarified sports, even within its blood, grunt, and sweat domain of violence and pain. Then the modern era occurred, fighters like Ali and Tyson turning the competition into the exclusive kingdom of almost impossible to defeat gods. By the mid ‘80s, scandal and crime undercut the activity, slowly turning it into a living, lying joke. Today, it’s all about extreme, and ultimate, and mixed martial artistry. A boxer can’t get arrested unless he’s wants to - or is on HBO or Showtime. But put a few thick-headed hunks in a cage and let them beat the snot out of each other for public consumption, and Generation Next can’t get enough.
So a film like Fighting should seem like a Tinseltown no brainer. Take a cult figure filmmaker (Dito Monteil of A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints), toss in a few famous faces (Oscar nominee Terrence Howard, MTV muscle boy Channing Tatum) and put them into the grimy and gritty world of NYC underground boxing. Sprinkle with the standard boy meets girl from around the way melodrama, add in a few can’t miss character actors (Luis Guzman) and everything should pump with testosterone-laced fisticuffs. Unfortunately, the casting causes more problems than it solves, the love story stinks, and Monteil may have a feel for the city, but he has little flash when it comes to crafting onscreen action. Fighting is one of the most inert bare knuckle brawlers ever.
Tatum plays Shawn MacArthur, an ‘ah shucks’ transplant from Alabama who is carrying a bit of failed family baggage on his meat puppet shoulders. Keeping to himself, he tries to make it selling fake IPods and counterfeit Harry Potter books to gullible Manhattan suckers. One day, he runs across a Fagan-like ticket scalper named Harvey Boarden. Seeing that Shawn can rumble, the two team up to make some quick cash. Before they know it, they are traveling to Brooklyn to face off against a Russian bad-ass, and then entering the Bronx to battle a beefy, blinged-out homunculus. All the while, Harvey promises a massive payday, but Shawn is sick of seeing little green. When he meets a waitress at the local gangster’s club, he is momentarily misdirected. But then Harvey sets up a huge fight with an old rival from our heroes past - and worse yet, they must throw the match in order to get their cash.
If it all sounds familiar and formulaic, that’s because Fighting is carved almost completely out of the efforts that have graced the street scrapper genre before. There are bits of Rocky here, nods to Fat City and Hard Times along the way. Monteil certainly believes he is making a motion picture completely in touch with the streets. He tosses in so many references to urban archetypes, borderline clichés involving pitbulls, tattoos, and leather that he appears a single step away from restaging Scarface for the late 1990s. Unfortunately, nothing feels that authentic. Instead of seedy, it’s all stagy - and showy. Fighting wants to go for truth and brutal honesty. But its scam sham narrative is about as fictional as such forced storylines get.
And again, the acting is problematic. Guzman is good (he always is) though his dialogue appears made up of repeating Howard’s character name over and over again. Speaking of Mr. Hustle and Flow, there is a real desire on his part to come across as nonchalant, almost comical, about the life and death deals he is making. Howard puts on a slight high pitch pith, languishing over his lines like he’s just remembered them. He’s not bad, but he’s definitely not redefining the thespian art. And then there’s Tatum. The human equivalent of a mathematical null set, he’s so blank, so completely dead emotionally or dramatically, that we aren’t sure why Monteil is making us follow this lox. Surely there must have been someone better to champion - perhaps a really nice cut of prime rib, or a random slab of concrete?
As the script struggles for significance, fake insights giving way to reams of conversation contradictions, Monteil keeps piling on the implied local color. As a director, he has his specific beats down pat. He loves the overhead and underneath set-ups, the better to witness his actors grappling in yawn-inducing, you-are-there closeness. Similarly, his fighters can’t seem to stay in their proscribed arenas. One moment they are surrounded by spectators, the next they are careening through convenience stores and inside apartments. And it has to be said - Tatum’s Shawn never really “shows” why he’s such a great fighter. Fate always seems to step in and aid in his pursuit, be it a handy porcelain water fountain, a hyped up babe with a gun, or a well-placed plaster pillar. If he wanted to win us over, Monteil would have put two men in a ring and let them go at it in an as realistic way as possible.
Even in an unrated version (don’t get excited, all we get are a few extras seconds of mano-y-mano action, along with a dialogue addition or two) Fighting fails to excite. Deleted scenes added to the new DVD offer nothing new or interesting, and the reinserted material does little except add three minutes to the running time. In fact, it’s safe to say that whatever intentions Monteil and his co-writer had for this project appear lost in a haze of faked authenticity. You can just see the sets, reeking of male machismo and stunt coordinator cockiness. We never once feel like Shawn is someone worth investing in and Harvey is just as flawed as a focus. At the turn of the century, when the populace was desperate for some manner of entertainment, bare knuckles boxing was the gentleman’s pursuit. Fast forward 100 years and Hollywood has turned it into a test of tedium. The only thing you’ll be ‘fighting’ is your lagging attention span.