As with writer-director Dito Montiel’s prior A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Fighting evocatively captures the texture of New York City: the buzzing light in a public bathroom, the crowded bustle of a Times Square crosswalk, the stanky warmth of a Queens bodega. Such atmosphere is welcome given the clunky story at hand, a Lionheart redux in which Birmingham, Alabama transplant Shawn MacArthur (Channing Tatum) moves from selling iPods and counterfeit Harry Potter books on the sidewalk opposite Radio City Music Hall to a high-stakes underground fighting ring with the help of his personal Ratso Rizzo, “two-bit” Harvey Boarden (Terrence Howard). With a don’t-quit, rise-to-the-top arc that’s beyond formulaic and a love interest, club waitress Zulay (Zulay Henao), right out of the perfunctory paramour playbook, Shawn’s saga is, in narrative terms, predictable and preposterous. Compounding the tale’s roteness is the fact that, despite a backstory involving a fight with his coach-dad and his now-famous athletic rival Evan (Brian J. White), Shawn is an ill-defined lunkhead-gentleman whose blankness drains any import from his struggle to subsist on the streets.
Still, Fighting is not without its minor pluses, thanks to Howard’s soft-spoken performance as a man forced, at great disgust, to take shit from his rivals, as well as courtesy of small details that lend the hackneyed plot small measures of asphalt realism and humor—most notably via Zulay’s nosy, opinionated grandmother. Forgoing highly choreographed contests, Montiel’s bare-knuckled fight scenes have a wild backyard-brawl quality, with Shawn and his various combatants invariably segueing from boxing to tussling on the ground, clawing and wailing at each other with a frantic fierceness amplified by the director’s in-your-face cinematography. Coupled with the film’s scruffy portrait of the Five Boroughs (often scored to electric hip-hop), these authentic bouts of fisticuffs mildly counterbalance the incessant clichés and dreadful dialogue. Though that’s not to say there isn’t something appealing about Fighting’s cheesiness as well, most notably with regard to Luis Guzmán’s Harvey-needling crook and a suave crime boss embodied by Roger Guenveur Smith with the weirdly cadenced speech and bug-eyed menace of Christopher Walken’s King of New York.