Early in Dito Montiel’s Fighting, Channing Tatum, playing a handsome vagabond hawking counterfeit goods on the streets of New York, gets recruited by con man Terrence Howard to test his mettle in an underground bare-knuckle boxing match. Tatum, Howard, and a loveable entourage of young hoods venture to a church lobby in Brooklyn, an improvised space where the “ring” is just the tight circle of spectators gathered around as if watching a playground brawl. In his first fight, a winner-take-all contest, Tatum gets walloped by a quicker, more powerful opponent, but lucks into victory when he inadvertently slams the guy’s head into the hard porcelain of a drinking fountain. Suddenly, through an accident of architecture, Tatum is a star.
The black-market fisticuffs in Fighting have a real-life messiness that’s part of the film’s scrappy underdog charm; these are not bouts ended by the perfect slo-mo punch to the chops, but graceless mêlées that spill out in all directions. It’s a little like a grimy, street-level Ron Shelton movie, except in place of the would-be, has-been, or never-were athletic stars of Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump, and Tin Cup, Montiel’s characters exist far out on society’s fringes. Though its rough-around-the-edges style occasionally veers into outright sloppiness, the film is an antidote to slick studio product like 2008’s MMA advertisement Never Back Down, and it infuses even its clichés with the poetry of the everyday.
The relationship between a young naïf like Tatum and a veteran con artist like Howard seems rigged for betrayal from the start, but neither quite fits the stereotype, with Tatum keener than he looks, and Howard more a Ratzo Rizzo than a shark in waiting. Tatum’s romance with a nightclub waitress (Zulay Henao), though sweet, is undernourished by comparison, but even then, Altagracia Guzman (Raising Victor Vargas) lights it up as the woman’s disapproving grandmother. (The cast teems with other first-rate character actors in minor roles, including Luis Guzmán, Anthony DeSando, and Roger Guenveur Smith.) As with Montiel’s debut feature, A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints, Fighting doesn’t break new ground so much as animate B-movie types, but New York movies this gritty and flavorful don’t come along very often.