Writing about A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, the 2006 debut film by director Dito Montiel, I likened it to the sort of crude but fascinating object one might find in an exhibition of naif art. Adapted by Montiel—a former hardcore punk musician—from his autobiographical novel about his teenage delinquency on the streets of Astoria, Queens, the movie (which won the directing prize at Sundance) was a ragged, misshapen mess, with scenes that started and stopped arbitrarily and seemed cut together any which way, but its guttural power was undeniable. It was as if the movie had been kicking around violently in Montiel's head for decades before finally dislodging itself, at which point it got into our heads and stayed there for a good long while. Montiel's second film, Fighting, feels like it's been kicking around somewhere for a while too—in the office of a studio development executive eager to find more Fast and the Furious-style catnip for the urban adrenaline-junkie crowd.
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Like the Furious franchise, Fighting purports to offer us an insider's view of an illicit underground subculture that comes alive just as the city's ordinary, decent denizens go to bed. Here, it's the world of bare-knuckles brawling, whose competitors fight not out of emasculated rage against an overly commodified society like the angry young men of Fight Club, but simply because they enjoy it, or because it's the only thing they're good at, or because there's money to be made. The last is the impetus for Shawn MacArthur (Saints alum Channing Tatum), a romanticized vision of the cornpone rube trying to make it in the big city who, in one of the more fanciful notions of Montiel and co-screenwriter Robert Munic, is first shown eking out his fleabag-motel existence by selling counterfeit Harry Potter books on a Rockefeller Center sidewalk.
Never mind that you've never seen anyone as chiseled and freshly scrubbed as Tatum hocking black-market goods on the streets of Manhattan: He's somehow all of a piece with the movie's loopy vision of the city. Where A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints carried such a vivid sense of place that you felt as if Montiel knew every one of those humid Astoria alleyways firsthand, Fighting seems to unfold in a New York learned primarily from other movies—specifically those of the pre-Giuliani grindhouse era—no matter that the setting is present day. When Shawn, whose pugilistic skills are spotted early on by a sweet-talking ticket-scalper-cum-fight-promoter (Terrence Howard), does battle against one Asian challenger, the bout takes place in a gaudy, Orientalized hotel room (complete with transsexual hostesses) that seems on loan from Year of the Dragon. Afterward, everyone adjourns to what I'm fairly positive is the disco club from We Own the Night, where Shawn meets Zulay (Zulay Henao), the movie's resident single-mom-trying-to-make-ends-meet-who-happens-to-have-a-really-fine-ass.
Fighting Directed by Dito Montiel. Written by Dito Montiel and Robert Munic. Starring Channing Tatum, Terrence Howard and Zulay Henao. Opens Friday.
Montiel seems incapable of making an ordinary bad movie—he's too much of a willful eccentric, with a casual disregard for things like back story, character development and narrative tension, and a high indulgence for eccentric performers like Howard and Tatum. If Montiel was going to fail, it was bound to be spectacular, and Fighting bears that out in spades. The discursive style that managed to suit Saints is all wrong for a movie that needs the stripped-down engine of an American International Pictures quickie: For most of Fighting, Montiel denies us such basic information as how long Shawn has been in New York and why he came there—he seems to have just materialized on the F train—and when we do finally find out, it's only courtesy of another character's random act of Googling. This may also be the first movie about underground fighting in which there isn't so much as a single scene of the police busting up a brawl—or anyone even worrying that the police might bust up a brawl—and the only movie about fighting of any kind without so much as a single training sequence (save for a fleeting glimpse of Shawn doing push-ups on the subway, which only reinforces the idea that he was incubated there).
It's like an exploitation movie that thinks it's an art movie, only there's no art to be found.