I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Fighting

tn_fightingFIGHTING is a new movie about fighting. The “fighting” in the title is not a metaphor for struggling against crushing poverty, self doubt or family troubles, it’s only a metaphor for fighting. Actually, now that I think about it I guess it is a double meaning, I was trying to be a smart ass here but actually it’s true. But mainly it just means fighting.

You could definitely compare the movie to HARD TIMES. It also made me think of LIONHEART because it’s this circle of rich assholes setting up underground fights in different weird locations. But honestly it’s more Spike Lee or Martin Scorsese than Jean-Claude Van Damme. This is not the slick Hollywood movie I expected, it’s a gritty New York movie, layered with texture and naturalism. It makes you feel like you’re in New York, surrounded by people, hearing sounds coming from all directions. It’s all shot in interesting, dirty and cramped locations. The dialogue sounds partly improvised, mumbled and overlapping, sentences that trail off.

mp_fightingChanning Tatum (seen strung up to the right) plays Shawn Macarthur, a homeless dude in New York selling fake Harry Potter books on the street. When some kids steal his money and he fights back he catches the eye of Terence Howard as Harvey, another two bit hustler who decides to manage him in the underground fights.

In a way that makes it exactly like every other fighting movie, but this one is different. Harvey isn’t an inspirational visionary or even a cheating scumbag. He has a little bit of both but mostly he’s kind of a whiny grandmother type. He has a messy apartment and stacks of tickets to Broadway shows that he scalps. He offers Shawn free tickets to Wicked or Legally Blonde, but he never accepts.

Harvey is competing against two other fighter managers played by Luis Guzman (MAGNOLIA, THE SUBSTITUTE) and Roger Guenveur Smith (DO THE RIGHT THING, MERCENARY FOR JUSTICE). They’re not in it that much (it’s not called MANAGING) and those are the only recognizable faces in the movie. That includes the much younger dudes who hang out with Harvey, I thought maybe they were his kids but maybe not. They become Shawn’s entourage, dudes who tell him good job but don’t have much else to offer. I like seeing people in movies that just look like actual people you would see around and not really know what their deal is. Just, you know, those guys that go to Shawn’s fights with him.

I like that it’s not glamourous. Even when Shawn starts being successful he never lives the high life. When he makes money he puts it in his sock. Harvey keeps his winnings in a suitcase hidden in the piles of crap in his living room. Luis and Roger have a fancy office but it’s hidden in the back of a 99 cent store behind a money-themed beach towel.

Shawn’s not very macho, either. He’s the introverted Van Damme. Sure, he’s got muscles and wears a tank top. And he wants to win. But he never glories in being a champion. Courting his woman he’s shy and awkward. He’s very polite, constantly thanking or apologizing. He doesn’t try to show off his street cred like Vin Diesel or somebody would. He tries to hide that he sleeps on the street, he’s ashamed of it. When he first hooks up with Harvey he knows he’s a commodity to him, but he’s just doing what he has to to get some money and looks kind of embarrassed about it, like he’s a prostitute.

Another weird thing that kind of subverts the genre: you hardly ever see him training or practicing. And you don’t hear about him knowing any special fighting styles or moves. It’s not about him trying to get better. He’s just a tough guy, they have faith in him being able to fight. Maybe they just get lucky. Before the final fight he finally trains: he does clap pushups on the subway. Beat that, Rocky. You thought you were low budget with the meat thing, but meat is expensive. Shawn probaly jumped the turnstile too.

At first I was disappointed that the fights were shot in the 2009 style, closeup and handheld. But they won me over. You all know I prefer stylized fights with choreography, show-offy moves and clear staging, but most of that honestly wouldn’t work in this movie. Some of these fights feel very real, with an obvious UFC influence. There’s one behind a convenience store that feels like the audience-recorded bootleg of a concert – your view is sometimes blocked by the crowd, and you can hear people talking over the grunts of the fighters. Another one, inside a fancy apartment, has some chokeholds and drops that look deadly. And the final fight is just brutal. There’s one fight against a guy who I thought “Now come on, he couldn’t possibly beat this guy.” And then he didn’t. (I guess one guy he defeats is a well known fighter who could kick his ass, but I thought they made his come-from-behind victory more believable than many fight movies. It’s not one of those things where he beats him by using slow motion.)

But this is not much of an action movie, it’s more of a drama. It’s about relationships and quiet moments and shit. And they work. I think LIONHEART is a pretty well directed action movie, but this is the type of movie that focuses much more on the directorial craft and less at making the main character and his physical activities look cool. The setting is the most important character I think, the huge buildings, the weird people coming by mumbling random shit, Harvey whining at them to move along. Because you see this city you understand the characters better and what they’re struggling against. My metaphorical hat is off to director Dito Montiel of that movie called A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS that I don’t even know what it’s about but I think it has Channing Tatum in it also.

Tatum barely seems like the same stiff guy from GI JOE. He’s much more natural. The character is kind of a meathead, and he talks with what you might call a “white rapper accent” (or even a Seagal accent) so that probaly bugs people. But I liked him. I also think this is probaly the best Terence Howard performance since HUSTLE & FLOW. I wasn’t excited about him being in this, he’s been pretty generic in movies like THE BRAVE ONE and GET RICH OR DIE TRYING, but here he gives his own weird flair to the character that I can’t imagine anybody else doing. According to the brain trust at the IMDb message boards “OMG, this has to be the worst acting in a movie ever!!! What happened to Terrance Howard? He is a good actor, but in this movie he talked with some kind of odd accent, it was weird.” But I like him because he’s not your typical movie character, he’s not cool, he’s kind of pathetic, but I also kind of felt sorry for him. He has all the same problems that Shawn has but he’s a little older so he tries to pass himself off as more in control. Still, his voice shows his constant disappointment in the way things keep turning out.

Some people would probaly argue that this is a best of neither world type situation where somebody looking for a bunch of Van Damme kickboxing would be disappointed because it’s not really about fighting, and somebody wanting an independent drama wouldn’t like it because it is kind of about fighting and doesn’t try to go that deep into the characters, just more than you would in BLOODSPORT. But personally I think it’s a nice balance. It has some of what I like about both types of movies and makes for an unusual combination.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Monday, August 24th, 2009 at 11:57 am and is filed under Action, Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

27 Responses to “Fighting”

  1. Vern did you ever see Green Street Hooligans, by Lexi “Punisher” Alexender? That movie has the same kind of balance this one has. Plus Elijah Wood, so you know it’s class.

  2. Green Street Hooligans is total horseshit, but it’s fun horseshit. I didn’t believe a second of it, not least the idea that little Elijah Wood could take on all these blue-collar ruffians without the benefit of a ring that makes him invisible, but that’s okay. I want to believe that there’s a world where soccer fandom is like Gangs of New York.

  3. saw this at the drive-in (paired with a movie i actually wanted to see). what a huge pile of shit.
    if the kids today dig this, i’m sad.

  4. The only part of Hooligans I didn’t like was the narration, that was to Fightclub-y and the words just didn’t sound right coming out of his mouth. But as someone with absolutely no idea what soccer culture is like over in Europe I thought it was a good movie that at least had the balls to do stuff you don’t typically see in movies (although in other parts it conforms to those conventions to a T).

  5. sorry i commented before reading the review. i’m a little disappointed with ya Vern, this movie was total garbage. i’m never usually this sure that i’m right about something, but c’mon. this is trash for poser teens and 20-something’s who’ve listened to too much Eminem and watched too much UFC. the main character is in no way likable. his “courting” of that girl is more like stalking, and any girl in real life would’ve likely called the cops on him.

    i’m realising now i could go on and on, so i’ll cut myself off now. save for Terence Howard (who i agree, wasn’t bad here) this one offers nothing.

  6. Dan – Considering me and maybe only 8 other people saw FIGHTING in theatres, I sincerely doubt it. Honestly I was going to skip it until Ebert gave it thumbs up. I mean usually for such movies if he digs them, I think they’re worth seeing.

    Vern – I had a feeling you would like FIGHTING. Its that sort of small genre junk movie that is easy to not bother with, or ready to bounce on it with sharp knives…yet the sneaky fucker uppercuts ya in the chin.

    My favorite bit you didn’t mention was Howard’s dream revealed to be running an IHOP in his hometown. Of all things, yet I kinda believe it. Both him and Tatum have fantasies, but not necessarily delusional as most fantasies tend to be.

    Also, after Tatum’s stripper past came out when GI JOE came to theatres, I cant help but wonder what else Tatum’s character did to make measley bucks to stay alive on the streets. Good thing we didn’t get STRIPPING.

  7. Brendan, it’s not that I didn’t like it. It’s a fun fantasy for little fellows like me who want to believe that all it takes to kick ass is heart (The Karate Kid Syndrome). I just don’t buy it. Oh, I’m sure that plenty of motherfuckers get into rumbles after each and every soccer match. I just doubt that it’s anywhere near as meaningful and dramatic as the movie paints it. I’d imagine it’s just a bunch of drunken assholes breaking bottles over each other’s heads for no good reason. It’s better than beating their wives like American football fans, I guess.

    Still and all, a decent movie. Now I kind of want to see it again.

  8. i have been looking forward to this for some reason and i’m glad you like it, vern. did you see NEVER BACK DOWN?

  9. Haven’t seen this yet, but I’m sure I will soon. I’m unconvinced by this whole Tatum thing, but what do I know. He seems like a less interesting version of Lucas Black.

    However, as a Brit, I find Greenstreet Hooligans to be a crock of shit. I can understand it being fun to people that aren’t from the UK – but the whole thing is just so phoney -from Hunnam’s awful “Cockerney” accent to the romanticized treatment of hooligan culture itself – that I pretty much despise it.

  10. a – I thought NEVER BACK DOWN was a cartoon nonsensical version of FIGHTING.

  11. Telf, that was more or less what I was driving at. It’s fun as a macho fantasy, but it seemed really, really phony to me as drama, and I’ve never even been to the UK.

  12. Yes, your instincts served you well.

    That’s part of what I loved about Fight Club (although that was a much more heightened world)- that it was as more a critique of that sort of nonsense than a celebration of it- and it was more about getting beat up than beating others up.

  13. Dan – I don’t mind if you go on and on, I’m not sure I understand what you hated so much about the movie. Both characters refer to what he’s doing as “stalking,” but he doesn’t really go that far, and you later find out (SPOILER) that she’s known who he is all along anyway. So I don’t see a big problem with that. Maybe if the love story was the central part of the movie, but I didn’t think it was.

    RRA – Yeah, I should’ve mentioned the IHOP, that was a good part. I also like when Shawn gets his money back from Harvey at the diner at the beginning, and as he’s leaving Harvey wants to convince him to stay but all he can think to yell after him is “Wait, try one of these bread things, they’re really bad!”

  14. RRA – yeah it was pretty preposterous, but i dug the way it looked and moved. and there was something genuine and fresh beneath the slickness — the really committed performances, and little details about the main dude’s shitty life and frustration with his situation that placed it above most films of its type. i’m curious what vern would make of it.

  15. Sorry that I can’t comment on “Fighting” and I’m going to jump right into the Green Street Hooligans discussion going on, but most of what I’d heard about “Fighting” was awful, so I skipped it.
    Green Street Hooligans was one of those movies that I personally loved the first time I saw it, but even then found most of it laughable. Why the bad-guy Hooligans, who from what I can remember supported Millwall, were cast as being massive terrifying lugs, while the good guy Hooligans (West Ham supporters) were Elijah Wood and Charlie Huttham still blows my mind. To be honest a guy like Channing Tatum might have been able to pull it off, but like, it’s Elijah fucking Wood. I’m sure it inspired a crapload of Harvard journalism students to drop out of school and go fight degenerate thugs on the mean streets of the UK though. Still wasn’t as ridiculous as Danny Dyer’s “Football Factory” when it comes to shitty soccer hooligan movies though (also check out the follow-up documentary style tv show if you’re into that sort of thing).
    If you are interested in hooligan movies, I’d strongly recommend “The Firm” with Gary Oldman. They are remaking it now, but the original is enough to scare me off British soccer fans for life.

  16. I saw The Girlfriend Experience on the weekend and it had a bit of the same appeal of just seeing all the wacky people in New York and how they randomly collide and reveal themselves to each other etc.

    I think it was also a movie that was probably just too much equal distance from two camps of films; like how Vern describes this one being not stylized enough for an action movie or deep enough to stand alone without its fight club gimmick.

    If you want a film that feels like a real lost Scorcese masterpiece rent The Beat That My Heart Skipped. That shit is aces.

  17. much of what i didn’t like about this movie were small things. the first paid fight he participates in, he’s getting his ass thoroughly beaten and eventually he wins by delivering one single blow of shoving his opponents head into a water fountain. then everyone at the party applauds him (“hey kid, you got some skill”). how the fuck exactly is THAT skill? me and my girlfriend turned to each other, both with big “what the fuck” faces.

    like i said, little things, and they added up.

    but overall i just saw the film as longshot fantasy for wannabe thugs. and as i mentioned before, i didn’t like the main character one bit. i also have a really hard time believing a homeless guy would be built and groomed like a Calvin Klein model.

  18. I bought that fight and conclusion because hey, dude was cookie dough…until he becomes harder than wood by the end. You gotta start somewhere, and hey why not play dirty if you can?

    And yeah it is a fantasy. Its a movie.

  19. i’m as surprised as anyone to be disagreeing with a Vern review. by my count it’s the first time. i kept expecting the review to slide into “naw, i’m just fuckin with ya, this isn’t that great”. i’m all for underground fight movies, but this just seemed too far fetched and silly.

  20. Danny – yeah The Firm is much better – functions as a drama, not some pseudo-high-minded action flick. Oh, and I contend that Danny Dyer is a blight on British culture.

  21. Vern, I’m sure that you’re all over this but in case you haven’t seen this, check it out. Seagal Reality TV.

    http://www.movieline.com/2009/08/your-first-look-at-steven-seagal-lawman.php

    Look at him run in the video. Pure gold.

  22. Vern – I think you hit on my disappointment with it. It had a great cast, and was the best of neither world. I didn’t get Van Damme stylised violence, Bourne brutality, or Rocky heart. Felt like it was a waste of 90 minutes of my life, with nothing going for it but mediocrity…

  23. I prefer the prequel “Punching”

  24. ^^^ – hahaha. nice.

  25. Saw it yesterday, was all right. Loved the music, some of the dialogue, the whole look, yeah it was worth it. What you should check out is the current description of Lionheart I just saw on Wikipedia, funny stuff.

  26. Call me crazy but I thought this was some of the best dialogue/acting I’ve seen in a long time. In a movie with a laughable title on par with Snakes on a Plane of all things! There were so many lines like the aforementioned “c’mon sit down…and have some of these bread things….they’re really terrible…” that I just had to rewind and watch again. It’s like the director just let everyone, especially Howard, adlib their way through the entire movie and it’s immersive and entertaining as hell. My personal favorite is when the girl opens the door and hits Channing in the shoulder, and mumbles, “oh, i just hit you with the door” or something like that.

    As a testament to the director’s skills, the actor who plays the “cocky asshole bad guy” here is amazing- he seems like an asshole who’s still kinda smooth and the undisputed coolest guy in the club. The same actor also plays the cocky asshole bad guy in “Tyler Perry’s I can do Bad All By Myself” and is so over the top and one-note I thought he would twirl his mustache.

    I hate to say it but the only misstep is Roger Guenever Smith, who’s the only one who seems to be “acting”, i.e. doing a really bad Christopher Walken impression. It totally takes you out of the movie whenever he’s onscreen which is too bad since he’s in it alot more towards the end.

  27. I love the little Picasso-style emoticon kissyface at the end. It makes me want to actuate some doors.

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