"I believe in fate," murmurs the soft-spoken Shawn MacArthur, by way of explaining how he was positive that he'd run into beautiful single mother / cocktail waitress Zulay so soon after a fleeting encounter in the most populated city in the United States. But he might as well have said, "I believe in movies in which every step of the narrative is telegraphed well in advance, every character is numbingly familiar, every choreographed brawl is edited into unwatchable confusion, and a feisty, tiny, Spanish-speaking mother steals the show."
As played by Channing Tatum in Fighting, a low-key potboiler directed by Dito Montiel (A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints), Shawn is a mysterious, brooding loner with downcast eyes that only light up when he's flailing away at an opponent with his hands, feet, or head. Shawn has somehow landed in New York City, evidently by fate, since we never learn why he headed to the Big Apple instead of, say, Cincinnati or Atlanta or Albuquerque.
Eventually, pieces of his back story emerge, but long before that happens, the two defining aspects of his personality are writ large: he's a nice guy with a wicked temper. One moment, he's politely holding an emergency gate open for an elderly lady in the subway and bemusedly indulging a long stream of cheats who quickly follow behind her. The next, he's flailing away at a gang of thieves intent on disrupting his fledgling street merchant "business" of selling scavenged items on a sidewalk.
The latter scene is where he catches the eye of two other characters who will, inevitably, become the most important people in his life: Terrence Howard as street hustler Harvey and Zulay Henao as Zulay, a woman trying to buy a children's book.
Howard plays Harvey as a slightly upscale Ratso Rizzo. He initially appears to be some kind of smooth operator, controlling a small gang of admiring acolytes, but his surface charm is revealed to be only a thin facade covering a nervous, insecure man with a constant tremor. He's like a boxer who refuses to admit defeat, even after his face and body have been beaten to a pulp. His pride generates sufficient momentum to keep moving forward, ever forward, a land shark always searching for food.
When he sees Shawn explode on the street, he recognizes the kid's talent, and moves in to claim him as his own. He says he knows people in the underground boxing scene and promises Shawn big, quick money. Shawn doesn't know what he wants, but he knows he needs money to get it; he doesn't need much convincing. Harvey explains the only rules: anything goes, winner takes all. Shawn has no problem with that, and easily defeats his first opponent in a knock-down, 'break whatever's handy' fistfight, leading to a celebratory evening in a nightclub where he has his fateful second meeting with Zulay.
She half-heartedly resists his advances, not really minding that he's stalking her. Ostensibly, she's mindful of her young child, but in reality, she's fulfilling the role of the archetypal girlfriend in b-movies: the "good" girl, a sexually-desirable woman and nurturing mother who will tame the wild impulses of the bad boy but make him wait before she lets him kiss her.
In Fighting, the NYC underground boxing scene is a kind of moveable feast where everyone keeps bumping into one another. Shawn calls it fate; you could call it Teen Fight Club, because they run in such a tight circle they might as well all be attending the same high school. On the same night Shawn again encounters Zulay, he exchanges evil glares with Evan Hailey (Brian White), the acknowledged superstar of the extreme fighting scene. Evan wrestled on the same team with Shawn in college until Shawn had a major blow-out with his father, who was coaching the team.
To further populate the incestuous scene -- and add obvious parallel power relationships -- Harvey is estranged from two old running buddies who now seemingly control his fate. Jack Dancing (Roger Guenveur Smith) is the power broker and Martinez (Luis Guzman) is one of his lieutenants. Martinez, especially, loves to goad Harvey, just by repeating his name over and over again. Jack and Martinez are holding something over Harvey; it's never revealed exactly what happened in the past, though Harvey is obviously desperate to be free of his former friends.
Guzman handles his role with finesse. He's an ugly and obnoxious character, without spilling into utter absurdity, and it's always a pleasure to see the actor on screen. Likewise, Terrence Howard bravely brings credible weakness to a role that could have drowned in oily bravado, and Altagracia Guzman (the memorable grandmother in Raising Victor Vargas) enlivens each of her crackerjack scenes as Zulay's overly-protective, 'funny because it's so true,' Old World mother.
Really, though, Fighting is a showcase for Channing Tatum to flex his muscles as a leading man. He's pleasant, polite, and respectful, looks good without his shirt, and certainly gives good glare. Still, he never edges into the potentially unsettling territory of menace, danger, or unbridled rage; he's the kind of extreme fighter who might pummel you to within an inch of your life and then pick you up, dust you off, and shake your hand.
He's much like the movie itself and the world it creates. The story is set in scuzzy neighborhoods, sleazy nightclubs, and crowded backrooms of run-down shops filled with scam artists and hustlers, yet never generates the late-night, empty subway station fear that you might get mugged. It may have been shot on the streets of New York City, but it's a tourist's worst nightmare vision safely bottled up for display: nice, neat, clean, and non-threatening.
In short, Fighting floats like a butterfly but doesn't sting like a bee.