It’s called “Fighting,” and its unpolished, messy fracases are among the film’s highlights. But there’s much more to it than that: more than the easily sold idea of Channing Tatum as Shawn, a down-on-his-luck drifter, drawn by two-bit hustler Harvey (Terrence Howard) into New York’s underground fighting scene; more than Shawn’s romance with struggling single mother Zulay (Zulay Henao).
The word that best expresses the film is “vivid.”
It feels like a guided tour of the city’s in-your-face underbelly, loaded with detail that only a native with an artist’s eye could reveal. Director and co-writer Dito Montiel’s previous effort, Sundance sensation “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” (also starring Tatum), similarly depicted an unglamorous New York so real you could smell it -- for better or worse. The casting of extras, location scouting and production design all display care not common to the genre.
As to the fighting in “Fighting” -- it continues the exciting trend of realistic combat that helped make “Taken” a surprise hit, but it goes much further. Some throwdowns look and feel like street brawls, choreographed to look unchoreographed: ugly, rough and thrillingly unpredictable.
The heart of the movie, though, is the “Midnight Cowboy"-esque relationship between Shawn and Harvey. Tatum’s two-fisted ingenue has clarity, drive and dangerous physicality. As Harvey, Howard shares with the viewer a daily litany of small humiliations, fortunately balanced by the character’s ability to keep dreaming and pushing all the disappointments aside with street-smart humor.
It’s not “Raging Bull” or “Fight Club,” but “Fighting” is populated by believable losers and lovingly adorned with just the right faces and peeling wallpaper to absorb you in Montiel’s world. That immersion makes otherwise predictable plot movements come as more of a surprise than they should, and it separates the movie from the factory-made widgets of the genre.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense fight sequences, some sexuality and brief strong language
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: In general release