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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

FILM REVIEW OF ''FIGHTING'' (2009)

The running joke about most movies made in New York City is that penny-pinching producers usually shoot spectacular aerial long vistas of the Big Apple and then lens everything else either in Canada or on a Hollywood back lot. If you're ever visited N.Y.C., you can spot the difference between the actual locale, usually unkempt and teeming with humanity, and the comparative tidiness of Toronto or an immaculate Hollywood soundstage. Award winning Sundance film director Dito Montiel of "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints," shot his new movie "Fighting" (** out of ****) with Channing Tatum on the mean streets of ‘the city that never sleeps’ where Montiel grew up. The terrific authenticity of Gotham, however, cannot compensate for "Fighting's" punch-drunk plot about illegal street fighting.

If you've seen any of the dozens of movies since "Hard Times" (1975) with Charles Bronson," "Every Which Way But Loose" (1978) with Clint Eastwood, "Lionheart" (1990) with Jean Claude Van Damme," "Fight Club" (1999) with Edward Norton and “Snatch” with Brad Pit, about underground bare knuckles boxing, you've caught the cream of the crop. Generic from the get-go, "Fighting" amounts to little more than a sluggish knuckle-sandwich saga that telegraphs its every surprise far in advance.

Shawn MacArthur (Cullman, Alabama, native Channing Tatum of "Step Up") hasn't been in the Big Apple long. He earns his keep selling books on the sidewalk. The first time Shawn tries to pedal his product with other vendors on Broadway, several street hoods attack him and steal his money. He swaps blows with one of them and puts the guy down for the count. Watching this fracas from the periphery, eagle-eyed Harvey Boarden (Terence Howard of "Iron Man") admires the way that Shawn defends himself from multiple attackers. Not surprisingly, Shawn's assailants work for Harvey who earns his money by hustling the streets when he isn't selling fake Broadway tickets.

Eventually, Shawn and Harvey cross each other's paths. Initially, Shawn just wants the dough back that Harvey’s henchmen stole from him. Harvey convinces Shawn that he can earn $5-thousand and more by participating in illegal street fights. Gradually, Shawn and Harvey grow to trust each other, but beneath the surface simmers an unstated tension between them. Basically, Harvey sees Shawn as his ticket to prosperity. Harvey hails from Chicago. He came to N.Y.C. with the dream of opening an IHOP, while Shawn is fresh out of Birmingham, Alabama, after he parted company with his wrestling coach father following a family dispute. Shawn's past catches up with him in the character of arrogant Evan Hailey (Brian J. White of "12 Rounds") who was a member of Shawn's father's wrestling team. When Shawn and Evan tangled in a fight, Shawn's father tried to intervene and Shawn put the smack down on dad. Indeed, trouble with fathers is a theme that Montiel explored in depth in his first feature “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.”

Montiel choreographs each of Shawn's brawls with a sloppy, improvised realism so you see these goons grapple with each other more than swap old-fashion, John Wayne type right crosses. Unfortunately, these slugfests lack the ferocious intensity of last year's bare knuckled high school drama "Never Back Down." Instead, Tatum and his opponents engage in free-for-all bouts that resemble the fistfights from the second-rate survivalist saga "The Condemned" (2007) where the combatants pounded on each other, but we never saw fists smash flesh. What stands out about these fights is the locales. Montiel stages this fights in Gotham’s ethnic neighborhoods, such as the Russian enclaves in Brooklyn and the Hispanic hang0uts in the Bronx.

The villains are an anemic. Martinez (Luis Guzman of "Carlito's Way") and Jack Dancing (Roger Guenveur Smith of "American Gangster") are Harvey's old friends, but they show him no respect. They want to eliminate Harvey and take on Shawn as their own boxer. Meanwhile, Shawn and Evan talk tough to each other about old times in Dixie. Evan openly antagonizes Shawn. Nevertheless, these villains prove too lightweight to be intimidating. They never do anything really heinous to get our collective goat, so we have no reason to savor their demise.

Good fight movies make you want to shadow box, but the fights in "Fighting" lack any energy. Sadly, too, we are deprived of the inevitable training sequence that is part and parcel of any good Palookaville potboiler. Here, our protagonist engages in a quick workout on a subway. Later, in one of his bouts, Shawn takes on an opponent versed in martial arts with predictable results. As charismatic as our hero is, he never earns our admiration, because he never gets truly beaten to a pulp. He is just too lucky.

Montiel penned the script with Robert Munic of TV's "The Cleaner." "Fighting" qualifies as little more than an anthology of cauliflowered clich├ęs and stereotypes from boxing movies. The relationship between Harvey and Shawn grows complicated when Harvey arranges a $100-thousand winner take-all-purse and struggles to persuade Shawn to throw the fight. This is one of those boxing plots as old as either "Golden Boy" (1939) with William Holden or "The Set-Up" (1949) with Robert Ryan and more recently Bruce Willis in Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" (1994). Naturally, Montiel and Munic provide our hero with some time out for romance. He meets cute, sexy Zulay Valdez (Zulay Heano of "Grizzly Park") who makes ends meet in a private club as an underpaid, overworked, single-mom waitress with a young daughter and a stern, drill sergeant of a mother (scene stealing 78 year old Altagracia Guzman)who never gives Shawn a break.

Tatum channels Marlon Brando, mumbling his dialogue and behaving so casually that he doesn't appear to be acting. Clearly, Tatum is an up and coming cinematic contender, a handsome but hard-bitten hero in the Vin Diesel mode. Terence Howard, who is usually very good, looks miscast. He doesn't look as desperate for success as his character complains about being, while Zulay Henao doesn't garner enough on-screen to time to make much of an impression despite her high wattage smile.

"Fighting" isn't a tenth as good as Montiel's first film "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints." "Fighting" spends too much time pulling its punches to deliver any clout.

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