Midnight Cowboy by way of Walter Hill´s Hard Times; that´s Fighting in a nutshell, director Dito Montiel´s solid-if-unspectacular B-movie that knows what it is and is firmly rooted in its origins. “There´s no pride in this, nobody wins a medal in the end,” one character says of the bare-knuckle brawls that our hero participates in; he may as well have been talking about the film itself, which attempts nothing fancy but gets the job done.
In the Joe Buck/Jon Voight role we have Alabama cowboy Shawn MacArthur (Channing Tatum), fresh on the streets of a richly atmospheric New York City, trying to earn some cash selling umbrellas and counterfeit Harry Potter books to passersby. When he defends himself against some thugs trying to make off with his merchandise, he catches the eye of Harvey Boarden (Terrence Howard), a streetwise bulldog a la Ratso Rizzo/Dustin Hoffman.
Harvey sees some raw talent in MacArthur, talent that might be able to make them some cash in illegal winner-take-all bare-knuckle brawls set in the back rooms of storefronts. He offers Shawn a shot at $5,000 by participating in one of these fights, where two men bash each other in front of a crowd of 50, who cheer and holler and place side bets on the action. Harvey wins and impresses, and continues to win, leading up to a proposed fight against Evan Hailey (Brian White), a “professional” UFC-style fighter who was, coincidentally, trained by Shawn´s now-estranged father back in Alabama.
Things haven´t changed much since the ultimate bare-knuckle brawl movie, Hard Times, which was set during the Great Depression and starred Charles Bronson as the fighter and James Coburn as the promoter/manager. What has changed is the fight purse: the pittance that those fighters fought for has been replaced by up to $100,000, in Fighting´s final fight, a number that will have you questioning the film´s credibility. Still, Harvey figures they can win more by betting against themselves and throwing the fight, which sets up an interesting moral quandary: what are they fighting for, if not money?
Interesting side-note: one of the characters portrayed in Hard Times was Chick Gandil, the real-life baseballer who was one of the players involved in the Chicago Black Sox scandal, accused of taking bribes and throwing the World Series.
Despite the title and, well, most of the plot, those looking for fisticuffs action are likely to come away disappointed; there´s a total of four fight scenes in Fighting, each lasting no longer than a few minutes. And there´s no fancy choreography or WWF theatrics – just two guys brawling against each other, scrambling around, trying to win any way they can; even if that means bashing the other guy´s head against a porcelain sink basin. There isn´t any intrusive camerawork or editing during the fight scenes either: director Montiel wisely lets the brawls speak for themselves, and they get the blood pumping anyway.
While Tatum´s Shawn is at the center of the film, Fighting´s heart belongs to Howard´s Harvey, the pathetic-yet-lovable Ratso Rizzo character, who seems initially wise to everything, but eventually we realize he´s just put-upon by everyone. Howard is an excellent actor who has taken mostly supporting roles in major films like Iron Man and The Brave One since his breakout role as the ambitious pimp in Hustle & Flow; Fighting is the first time since that film that I´ve really seen him shine.
While Fighting is not nearly a classic along the lines of Midnight Cowboy or Hard Times, it is a refreshingly controlled B-picture the likes of which we rarely see anymore; it´s not dissimilar to David Mamet´s excellent Redbelt, and a worthy follow-up to Montiel´s previous film, the autobiographical A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.
Also opening: Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (showtimes | IMDb), the third in Fox Animation’s Ice Age series. It’s screening mostly in a Czech-dubbed version on Prague screens, but you can catch it in English at Palace Cinemas Slovanský dům and Villages Cinemas Anděl‘s Gold Class. It´s also screening in 3-D in select cinemas, but only in the Czech-dubbed version.