Fighting isn't a movie you watch for its plot, but it's beautifully constructed in its simplicity. The whole movie is staged like a fight — its ups and downs wholly predictable, the struggle reduced to the motif of the bareknuckle streetfight. It delights in its primal raw-ness — it's fitting that the final fight puts our scrappy hero up against someone who's turned pro — the "real" versus the commercial, the sell-out.
The story is simple — a boy from the south (Channing Tatum) struggling to make it in New York meets a self-described "two-bit hustler" (Terrence Howard) who gets him into a series of illegal fights. And there's a cute boy-meets-girl (Zulay Henao) story happening alongside, its beats carefuly matching the ups and downs of the fights.
And the simplicity of the story isn't a weakness — no-one should go into a movie called "Fighting" and expect a complex story. But the writing is solid — not just in its construction, but in its characterisation. There are some poorly defined characters on the fringes, but the core characters are fully developed, and come to life through some incredible acting. They're weak and flawed and completely not Oscar material, but they're endearing and, incredibly, far more real than more heroic characters can ever be. Terrence Howard gives what I'm certain is one of his greatest performances, and Channing Tatum is definitely one to watch out for.
The film itself is finely crafted — the cinematography and editing near perfect, and completely at the service of the storytelling.
And then there's the City.
Dito Montiel's New York
I watched Dito Montiel's previous feature, A Guide to Recognising Your Saints, only a couple of weeks ago. It was a really well-told semi-autobiographical thing with Robert Downey Jr and Shia LaBeouf both playing Dito. The film demonstrated a love for the streets of New York, and a keen eye. It was discovering that Fighting was also written and directed by Montiel that made me watch it.
The two films share a similar vision of New York City (not to mention sharing locations and actors). There's an evident love for its streets, but at the same time, a sense of isolation and alienation. In Fighting, aeriel shots serve only to emphasise the city's immense size. And in both films, the main characters don't really belong in NYC. In Guide, the young Dito desperately wants to get out of the city, and out of the streets that are taking his friends and will shortly destroy him. Older, he returns to his family and his old neighbourhood and the place is utterly alien to him. In Fighting, both Shawn MacArthur and Harvey Boarden are from elsewhere — they're in New York to make their fortune, but never really make it a home. Zulay, Shawn's love interest, and her family are Puerto Rican, and despite being obviously American, aren't really making it in New York. When they get their opportunity, the lot of them get out of the city. Curiously, in both Guide and Fighting, to escape means leaving for California — land of sun and dreams and opportunity.
One gets the impression that Montiel has a deep love of New York but, through both films, is working out his own conflict, getting over a childhood of struggle. There's a dark beauty in the struggle he depicts, but the sense is that the City is oppressive, and monstrous, luring and trapping people. It's depressing and frightening, but a fascinating parallel to the filmic visions of New York as a city that welcomes anyone and everyone, and to films that glamourise even the struggle. There's no glamour here.
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