There’s been no press coverage of any final-cut squabbles over “Fighting”; so far as we know, director Dito Montiel didn’t have his movie taken away from him and chopped up by studio drones.
So why does it feel like there’s a good half-hour missing from the final product? Specifically, the 30 minutes where the characters and motivations are explained?
Here’s what we do know: Shawn (Channing Tatum) lives in New York City and tries to eke out an existence selling anything from umbrellas to bootleg Harry Potter knock-offs on the street. When low-level grifter Harvey (Terrence Howard, not doing a monotone whisper for once) sees Shawn defend himself with his fists, the petty crook takes the Alabama exile under his wing and introduces him to the world of underground bare-knuckles brawling, where anything goes.
After his first victory, Shawn accompanies Harvey to a nightclub where we’re suddenly introduced to about eight different characters, including waitress Zulay (Zulay Henao) — who had previously been burned on one of Shawn’s volumes by not-J.K.-Rowling — and legit fighter Evan (Brian White), who has history with Shawn.
Both Shawn and Evan were college classmates whose wrestling coach was Shawn’s dad; Shawn punched his father in a fight, and they’ve been estranged ever since. And Evan resents Shawn for having hit his coach. Or he resents Shawn’s dad for being a racist. Or he hates both of them. It’s never clear.
“Fighting” inevitably builds to the Big Fight between Shawn and Evan, but the movie fails to explain why a famous fighter would participate in an illegal underground event. We also never find out why two of the main organizers of the bouts — played by Luis Guzmán and Roger Guenveur Smith — are so constantly condescending to Harvey when the three apparently all used to be good friends. That’s never clear either.
The script (by Montiel and Robert Munic) ends with a climax that feels half-baked and tacked-on, which only highlights the many previously unanswered questions.
When Shawn takes his shirt off and puts up his dukes, “Fighting” comes alive. All of the film’s brawls have a real kinetic energy to them, but they’re unique from each other. Part of this variety comes from the venues, which range from a Brighton Beach social hall to a Wall Street penthouse, but each of Shawn’s opponents fight in a different style, and that keeps these scenes from ever feeling repetitive.
You start to long for the violence, however, when Channing Tatum is called upon to act. Usually in movies (“Stop-Loss” being a notable exception), he’s a gorgeous lump; here, he’s a gorgeous lump trying to pull off a convincing Southern accent. We’re supposed to care about his courtship with Zulay, but their moments together are so unmagnetic that the theater might as well flash “Now would be a good time to visit the concession stand and the bathroom” at the bottom of the screen.
Montiel had a Sundance hit a few years ago when he wrote and directed the screen adaptation of his memoir “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.” The next time I try to convince someone that many of the allegedly indie filmmakers at Sundance are just there in the hopes of getting to one day direct a big, dumb studio movie, I’ll be pointing to “Fighting” as the latest example.