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Squandering Resistance for a Pocketful of Mumbles

Fighting (2009)

Phillip V. Caruso/Rogue Pictures

"Fighting," a frenetic and exuberant new film by Dito Montiel ("A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints") follows a young Alabama native trying to survive the streets of New York City. He earns his money by going to the outer boroughs, meeting the local people of color and beating them to a bloody pulp. While most of the film gets by on genuine emotions and humor, on the heels of movies like "Observe and Report" it's beginning to feel like the Year of the Angry White Male.

The film begins with Sean MacArthur (Channing Tatum), who makes his way through the city, alone and broke, looking like he's just stepped off the pages of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog. After a street brawl, he meets Harvey Boarden (Terrence Howard), a self-described "two-bit hustler" who convinces him he can make more cash by fighting than by hawking knock-off Harry Potter books. Sean's underground fights take him from Brighton Beach to Jerome Avenue, as he battles some personal demons along the way.

While a few elements of the plot require suspension of disbelief, there's a great deal of authenticity here. Mr. Montiel cut his teeth on this type of realism, derived from his own childhood in Astoria, Queens, and his attention to detail is exquisite, especially for an action film. The most immediately satisfying is the photography of real New York. No Hollywood sets or Toronto shots here. Mr. Montiel clearly delights in every part of the city, from the hawkers in Chinatown to the hustle of Rockefeller Center to an empty subway car. His attention to the interiors is no less exacting. Each apartment feels real, almost painfully so, with cluttered coffee tables, dusty blinds and children in mismatched pajamas. Nothing feels forced or contrived, but simply caught in its natural state of being.

Mr. Howard continues in this vein of authenticity. The strongest actor in the film, he plays Harvey with just the right touch: gentle, despite his seediness, and even a bit effeminate. We hear briefly about his past dreams and regrets, but it's almost unnecessary. One can glean his back story from a simple look or gesture; the way he wears his pajama pants tucked into his socks or keeps his apartment. Mr. Montiel references "Midnight Cowboy" as an inspiration; and while there's a bit of Ratso Rizzo in there, Mr. Howard has made the role his own. Mr. Tatum plays his part a bit more woodenly, but the relationship between the two of them stays nuanced and interesting.

Then, of course, there's the fighting: tightly choreographed and wince-inducing, with lots of skulls being thwacked onto marble floors. Sean's final fight is to a young black pro, Evan Hailey (Brian White), a rival from Sean's volatile childhood. Despite a contrived back story and an obligatory romance with Puerto Rican waitress Zulay (Zulay Henao), "Fighting" remains surprisingly funny and witty throughout. There are admittedly some very problematic themes in the film, and cultures get caricatured. But for better or worse, the film is immensely likable. Perhaps some of that has to do with the fantasy feel of the whole thing. There probably is some sort of illegal underground scene happening right now, behind closed doors, but "Fighting" reads more like a joyful nostalgia piece about the grittier, dirtier New York City of Mr. Montiel's memories.


Opens on April 24 in the United States and on May 15 in Britain.

Directed by Dito Montiel; written by Mr. Montiel and Robert Munic; director of photography, Stefan Czapsky; edited by Jake Pushinsky and Saar Klein; music by David Wittman and Jonathan Elias; production designer, Thérèse Deprez; produced by Kevin Misher; released by Rogue Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Channing Tatum (Shawn MacArthur), Terrence Howard (Harvey Boarden) and Luis Guzmán (Martinez).


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