By Roger Moore
Randy Crawford’s 1970s cover of “Street Life” blasts from the soundtrack, and “Fighting” director Dito Montiel (“A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints”) fills the screen with precisely that — a grungy, hustling “Midnight Cowboy” New York. The director plays a visual game of three-card monte on us for this silly, weakly acted and yet sometimes entertaining variation on the “Big Fight” movie formula.
“Watch the crook selling ‘just fell off a truck’ refrigerators, the ‘real people’ bit players and extras,” Montiel says with his camera. “Don’t pay any attention to the leading man with no improv skills trying to learn how to stammer!”
The movie is a game of misdirection, distracting us from hunky but dull Channing Tatum as an ex-high school wrestler from Alabama who comes to New York for reasons we don’t know and becomes an underground mixed-martial arts star in ways we can’t believe.
Tatum’s Shawn MacArthur falls in with small-timer Harvey (Terrence Howard, quite good), a ticket scalper and leader of a crew of pickpockets and con men who sees “the white boy, the college boy” as a draw in New York’s illegal bare-knuckle brawl circuit.
“So,” Shawn asks, “They got rules?”
“They don’t like scared.”
Shawn fights and wins on a fluke, fights and loses but gets a no decision and then lands the “big” fight, the big payday, as a reward. Does this guy work for AIG?
He courts the single-mom barmaid (Zulay Henao), tries to figure out Harvey’s ugly history with hustler-foes Luis Guzman and Roger Guenveur Smith (who has some great moments) and mixes it up with bigger, stronger guys in a church, a restaurant in Koreatown, in a lesbian-packed convenience store in the Bronx, all for a too-rich and too-bored clientele. Meanwhile, an old foe (Brian J. White, sharp and mean) awaits.
Montiel (who co-wrote the script with Robert Munic) peppers us with streetwise dialogue that harks back to the original “Rocky.”
“Where you going?”
“Why? You lonely? You need a friend?”
But texture and dialogue and decent fight scenes don’t keep us from spotting the holes in this — or hole. Tatum is as good in the clinches as he was on the dance floor in “Step Up 2: The Streets.” It’s a pity they let him talk.