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Review: 'Fighting'

"Fighting" is a routine, three-act fight story that somehow creates uncommonly interesting character

Posted: April 23, 2009 4:06 p.m.
Updated: April 24, 2009 6:00 a.m.

Channing Tatum in a scene from "Fighting," which earned three stars from film critic Roger Ebert.

 
I like the way the personalities are allowed to upstage the plot in "Fighting," a routine, three-act fight story that creates uncommonly interesting characters.

Set in the streets of Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx, involving a naive kid from Alabama and a mild-mannered hustler from Chicago, it takes place in a secret world of street fighting for high cash stakes.

Do rich guys really bet hundreds of thousands on a closed-door, bare-knuckle brawl? I dunno, but it's cheaper than filming a prize fight arena.

Channing Tatum plays Shawn, whose dad was a wrestling coach near Birmingham. Terrence Howard plays Harvey, who everybody seems to know. Shawn is a hot-tempered kid not doing very well at selling shoddy merchandise on the sidewalks. Howard is soft-spoken, with a gentle voice and an almost passive personal style even though he works as an illegal fight promoter. He sees Shawn in a fight, recruits him, and lines up fights with $5,000, $10,000 and finally $100,000 purses.

He does this with stunning speed, even though at the first fight no one has ever seen Shawn before. The movie offers that and other problems of plausibility and logic, but I don't care about them because the director, Dito Montiel, doesn't. Possibly hired to make a genre picture, he provides the outline and requirements, and then focuses on his characters. Terrence Howard's Harvey is the most intriguing: He's laidback to be in the profession, so philosophical that he even faces what seems to be his own inevitable murder with calm resignation. He knows his world, is known in it, moves through it, yet seems aloof from it.

Channing Tatum, convincing as a former school athlete (which he was), quickly agrees to the fights, even against terrifying opponents. But "Fighting" invests much more feeling in his tentative relationship with Zulay (Zulay Henao), a single mom who works as a waitress in a private club where the private fight world hangs out. He approaches her like a well-raised Southern boy would, politely, respectfully.

This arouses greater interest because of the screen presence of Zulay Henao, who sidesteps countless hazards suggested by her character and makes her sweet, sensuous and perceptive. And then look at Altagracia Guzman as Lila, playing Zulay's elder relative (grandmother?), who was a great audience favorite as she guarded her beloved from the threat of a male predator. The way her talent is employed in the film is an ideal use of a supporting actress.

Listen also to the dialogue by Robert Munic and Montiel, which is far above formula boilerplate and creates the illusion that the characters might actually be saying it in the moment. An extended flirtation between Zulay and Shawn isn't hurried through for a bedroom payoff, but grows sweeter and more tender the longer it continues. This scene illustrates my theory that it is more exciting to wonder if you are about to be kissed than it is to be kissed.

"Fighting" is not a cinematic breakthrough. But it is much more involving than I thought it would be. The ads foreground the action, no doubt because that's what sells. The film transcends the world view that produced the ad campaign and gives audiences a well-crafted, touching experience. Sometimes you can feel it when an audience is a little surprised by how deeply they've become involved.

© 2009 THE EBERT CO.

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