Universal // 2009 // 108 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // August 25th, 2009
Some dreams are worth the fight.
"You lose, you get nothing."
Shawn (Channing Tatum, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra) makes a living selling bootleg CDs and DVDs on the streets of New York City. One day, he gets into a scrap with some would-be thieves and is noticed by a small-time fight promoter named Harvey Boarden (Terrence Howard, Iron Man). "You put on quite a show out there," Boarden says. He lures Shawn into the world of illegal street fighting with the promise of fortune. Shawn has little interest in violence, but knows that he has an opportunity to make a life for himself and his new girlfriend Zulay (Zulay Henao, S. Darko). Can a nobody like Shawn make it to the top, or is he doomed to go down Fighting?
Fighting is a curious hybrid of fantasy and reality that took me by surprise. The trailers made the film look like a thoroughly conventional rags-to-riches tale, and to be sure, the plot follows very traditional beats from start to finish. However, the atmosphere, characters and tone of the film feel considerably more realistic and compelling. The people in this film do not feel like stock film characters, making them less predictable and more interesting than we expect them to be. It's a tribute to writer/director Dito Montiel (who previously helmed the more indie-minded A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints) and co-writer Robert Munic (currently working on the Benjamin Bratt series The Cleaner) that Fighting is not just another disposable saga of a nobody overcoming the odds.
New York City feels like another character in the film. We see a lot of films set in New York, but too few of them really take the time to immerse themselves in the atmosphere aside from providing a few overhead shots of key locations. In Fighting, the locations feel alive. Every room, every alley, every apartment, and every office building feels like it has a history. If the walls could talk, they would have a lot of stories to tell. The people that populate these areas also feel surprisingly real. It's a surprisingly challenging thing to make the extras in your film seem like organic extensions of the area you are filming in rather than imports hired by the casting department.
The primary characters feel similarly convincing. The best of these is Harvey Boarden, who is about as far from a stereotypical fight promoter as you can get. Terence Howard does not play Harvey as a natural born salesman. In fact, he's not particularly good at convincing people that he's got something worthwhile even when he does. He's a soft-spoken man who's just doing what he can to get by. His dreams were never lofty ones. "I dreamed that I might run my own IHOP one day," he says. "Maybe have a little office in the back with my name on the door." He spends his free time going to see Wicked on Broadway (mostly due to the fact that he has access to free tickets). We also get a nice supporting turn from relative newcomer Zulay Henao, who proves to be an intriguing and atypical romantic interest. She's a single mother who lives with her grandmother (the wonderful Altagracia Guzman, I Heart Huckabees), and her romantic scenes with Tatum are surprisingly affecting. As for our leading man, well, I suspect Tatum was cast in G.I. Joe due to his resemblance to a plastic doll. Even so, he manages to perform effectively within his rather limited range.
While the fight scenes all end rather predictably, the scenes themselves were more involving than I expected them to be. There is a raw grit on display that brings a certain reality to the battles. Though the scenes have undoubtedly been carefully choreographed, they don't feel staged. Montiel makes sure that each individual setting is permitted to play a unique role in each fight: the floors, the crowds, and the available space all help determine the way each fight plays out. The best of these scenes is perhaps a moment that takes place inside a brothel, which mixes the earthy fighting style with a crisp business atmosphere in an unusual way.
The transfer is effective, presenting the somewhat muted color palette with clarity and detail. Flesh tones seem slightly off at times and darker scenes are a bit murky on occasion, but otherwise I have no complaints with the transfer. Audio is excellent, as the hip-hop dominated soundtrack is aggressive and involving. The dialogue is just a tad quiet on occasion, but not so much that you'll need to adjust the volume. The captured sound design is quite impressive; playing a noteworthy role in the immersiveness of the film. Extras include an unrated version of the film (three minutes longer and a bit more violent) and a handful of deleted scenes.
Despite the many praiseworthy elements, Fighting never had a chance of being anything more than a merely good film due to its conventional structure. While it permits the characters to be more complex than such characters are usually permitted to be, it never allows the pre-determined narrative to change in any way. That's too bad. Had the film been a little bit bolder, it might have become one of the more exceptional sports-themed films of recent years. Then again, it probably wouldn't have gotten a wide release had it refused to follow convention.
Though you shouldn't expect to be amazed, I'm pleased to report that Fighting is a surprise success. It's worth a rental, though the lack of noteworthy supplemental material prevents me from recommending a purchase for those on the fence.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Theatrical and Unrated Versions
* Deleted Scenes