There are two misleading things about Fighting, and only one of them is director Dito Montiel's fault. First there's the promos, which promise endless shots of a shirtless Channing Tatum training to be a killer street fighter. Sorry everyone, but Tatum is clothed most of the time. Then there's the trickier problem of the title, Fighting, which suggests a lot more brawling, bruises and blood than actually show up in this story. Montiel didn't want to make a sports movie, and therefore left out the usual training montages, tough-as-nails coach and final double cross that leads to the climactic final fight. But unfortunately he also left out most of the drama that would have made Fighting worth watching.
Using his same intimate New York knowledge that he used in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Montiel is telling the story of good Southern boy Shawn MacArthur (Tatum), who moves up to the big city only to find himself hustling on the street, selling counterfeit books and cheap umbrellas. A chance encounter leads him to meet Harvey Boarden (Terrence Howard), a hustler himself who wants to put Shawn into the underground fighting world and earn a buck for the both of them. The bare-knuckle fights happen on concrete and marble floors, with no rules and no ref, and apparently draw huge crowds of well-heeled types bent on seeing blood.
Shawn, who doesn't seem to have any real career goals, goes for it for money's sake, and soon proves himself a tough fighter willing to play dirty, in huge contrast to his polite demeanor. That's the side he uses to woo Zulay (Zulay Henao), a single mom waitress who doesn't really have time for a man while caring for her young daughter and her abuela. There's also an old rival from high school (Brian J. White), a relatively pro boxer and a hothead who, for no reason other than the demands of the script, eventually fights Shawn in the Final Fight that Determines Everyone's Fate. Hey, there's one sports movie trope that remained intact.
As poorly structured and unbelievable as Fighting can sometimes be, it also benefits from an excellent sense of place, filming scenes both in the heart of midtown Manhattan and in outer-borough enclaves like Brighton Beach and the South Bronx. Specific moments, like Shawn buying Zulay a stuffed animal from a street vendor known as the "pink bunny man," speak to a smaller, more intimate and real movie that's hidden behind the street fighting bravado. Montiel doesn't ignore the fight scenes entirely-- with DP Stefan Czapsky he gives fights a visceral, if occasionally incomprehensible, intensity-- but you get the feeling he'd rather play working-class Woody Allen, following these two characters around the streets of New York and watching them fall in love.
Tatum shows even more of the promise he's displayed in movies like Stop-Loss, balancing the beefcake factor with a real, touching vulnerability. Newcomer Henao works well with him too, though her last-act transformation into a less-than-good girl isn't exactly convincing. Fitting somewhere into this story, and maybe coming from another movie (or planet) entirely, is Terrence Howard's Harvey, who speaks with an affected accent and is either the king of the underground or the butt of everyone's joke. Harvey and Shawn develop a delicate friendship, based on significant distrust, but it never develops in a way that forms a satisfying base for the story surrounding it.
Stuck between the aggressively dumb and violent and movie its audience might be expecting and the subtle, tender movie Montiel seems to be aiming for, Fighting never quite finds its groove, though there will probably be plenty of audiences willing to show up to watch Tatum slam another guy into a marble floor. That's in there, of course, but it's not nearly enough to sustain a movie that wishes it could be more.