Wednesday, August 19, 2009

On DVD: "Fighting"

Channing Tatum is an actor who has appeared in his fair share of turkeys, and appears to be attracting an inordinate amount of the vitriol directed at G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra; that’s a film thankfully unseen by these eyes (seriously, a gun to my head and wild dogs nipping at my heels wouldn’t get me into that theater), but I get the drift of their argument. He’s a bulky, good-looking actor who doesn’t seem blessed with much in the way of craft or on-screen magnetism, but whenever I hear someone claim that he can’t act, I go back to Dito Montiel’s 2006 film A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, in which Tatum played a supporting role. As Antonio, the neighborhood tough guy, Tatum was outstanding; he may not be blessed with much in the way of range (I can’t imagine him playing very far outside the lines of the sensitive, damaged meathead of that film and his other performance of note, in Kimberly Peirce’s Stop-Loss), but he can play a certain type of role very well.

Fighting reunites Tatum with Saints writer/director Dito Montiel, a musician-turned-novelist whose first film was based on his memoir of growing up in Astoria, Queens. His New York roots shine through again in Fighting, which takes place among the hustlers and street salesman and truly seems to capture the look and feel of modern New York City—not the romanticized “movie” version, nor the urban hell of the 1970s and 1980s cinema. Fighting’s New York is loose and lived-in, and that vibe gives the picture a boost.

Channing stars as Shawn MacArthur, an out-of-towner who hawks bootleg books and DVDs on the streets of Manhattan and is always on the lookout for a small score. When Harvey (Terrence Howard), a more seasoned hustler, sees Shawn impressively fight a trio of youths in Harvey’s employ, he offers him the chance to make some real money—as an bare-knuckle brawler in the underground fight scene.

The story, and all of its peaks and valleys, is as old as the hills, but Montiel’s screenplay (written with Robert Munic) is intriguing; they hit all of the expected plot points, but go about it in a roundabout way. Montiel is interested in the subtext, the character moments, the people on the periphery (like the grandmother of the girl Shawn likes), the look and the feel of this world. In many ways, it’s a film that doesn’t feel as formulaic as it is. Montiel and Munic don’t subvert our expectations, not exactly—it’s more like they do their best to work around them and slip through them, deal with them, and move on. In the lead-up to the big climactic fight, for example, Montiel gives us a wonderfully tight montage of story threads coming together, then trots out some stark, effective imagery of Tatum warming up on an empty subway car. Those kind of stylistic touches help divert us from thinking too much about the predictable climax we’re working towards—to at least some degree, they drown out the sounds of the formula gears grinding into place.

Tatum doesn’t exactly blow you away, but he does the job; I’m still not sure if he’s a mediocre actor, or just prone to underplaying, and if it’s the latter, it works in a film like this one. Howard is somewhat underwhelming—he seems to be playing a lot of the same notes in his performances, and in some scenes, he and Tatum appear to be competing in a mumble-off. I wouldn’t call it a bad performance, but it’s not a very interesting one either. Zulay Henao is more interesting as the romantic opposite; she’s got a nice spark and there’s a shambling sweetness to her scenes with nervous, shy Shawn, even if their sex scene ends with that most cliché of images, the tightly clinched hands.

The fight scenes, which will be the primary interest for some audiences, are well-executed, tightly choreographed and shot while retaining the messiness of real scraps. Montiel’s use of strong character actors like Luis Guzman and Roger Guenveur Smith is wise; it helps put a spin on their roles, which are inherently well-worn types. And credit is due to the sparse writing—the subtle, slow reveals of Shawn and Harvey’s backgrounds are well constructed, sparing us the usual up-front exposition and allowing them to retain some mystery on their way to a satisfying final scene, which strike an interesting and perhaps unexpected note.

Fighting is occasionally clumsy, and some of the acting is a bit undercooked. But its primary problem is one of familiarity; as ingeniously as Montiel negotiates the hurdles of the underground sport/hustler-mentor construct, we still know exactly where it’s going, pretty much every step of the way. Montiel’s inventive direction and intelligent writing go a long way, but one wishes they were at the service of a story that hadn’t been quite so frequently told.

"Fighting" arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, August 25th. For full A/V details, read this review at DVD Talk.

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