Directed by Dito Montiel. Starring Terrence Howard, Channing Tatum, Zulay Henao, Luis Guzmán, Roger Guenveur Smith, Michael Rivera, Flaco Navaja, Peter Tambakis. (2009, PG-13, 105 min.)

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., May 1, 2009

On the face of it, Fighting, the new film from the director of A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, is a brawl of a movie, all fisticuffs and takedowns, sweat and machismo. Closer examination, as well as a less literal reading of the title, reveals considerably more: The characters bare-knuckle dust one another, to be sure, but they're also fighting for a whole lot more than the cash purse. They bob and weave toward love and respect, barely managing to keep rotten luck at bay. For Shawn MacArthur (Tatum), who enters into the competitive arena of New York City's full-contact fighting underground via strictly two-bit promoter Harvey Boarden (Howard, smooth as talc), it's a way out of his lousy day job as a street peddler and, if he's very lucky, a way into the good graces of waitress with heart Zulay (Henao). Harvey's fight, on the other hand, is pitched against his shady past and pulverization at the hands of the brutal, uncaring present. That present includes rival and more upwardly mobile fight managers who used to be allies (chief among them Guzmán, who's been playing the same role for a while now, sure, but what a role!), Russian Mafia types, and Harvey’s own personal disconnect from anything outside the benighted world of OTB (off the books) betting. Tatum, who worked minor miracles in Kimberly Peirce's Stop-Loss and also starred in Montiel’s Saints, again turns what could have been a dumb-oaf role into something considerably more. His slow-burn flirtations with Zulay are a model of actorly (and scripted) restraint. Coupled with his bruiser's mug, Tatum has "heart" written all over him. Howard's snappy-smooth performance, unsurprisingly, is what elevates Fighting from its hoary genre predecessors. He's a man on the ropes at too young an age, boxing at shadows in a rigged match, with the gods betting against him 10-to-1. That isn't a fair fight by a long shot, but what the hell, it's life, and that's close enough to make Fighting a sad-solid TKO.

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