Fighting -- Film Review

Nothing fancy about the title: "Fighting." The filmmakers certainly know what they're selling in this glimpse into the world of underground bare-knuckled fights held in private spots all over New York. However, the film comes from Dito Montiel, who showed he can put street life vividly on film in his rough and raw 2006 Sundance debut "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints." So while Rogue Pictures is marketing hot action, Montiel is more interested in how hustlers, drifters, con artists and the working poor think and act.

In Channing Tatum, who also starred in "Saints," the film has a good-looking, magnetic hunk to draw a crowd. Terrence Howard lends the pedigree of great screen acting, and Zulay Henao adds charm and glamour while a fine supporting cast validates the semi-documentary approach. The film should perform well in urban areas with teens and young adults. Suggesting the brutality only to a PG-13 level of graphic intensity is a smart idea.

While the movie makes no radical departure from the fight movies of the 1930s and '40s, Montiel and co-writer Robert Munic use the plot as a background to this study in characters and relationships formed on the fly in mean streets, back offices and hideaways of the rich.

Channing is a Southern lad new to the city. He shows enough agility in a street brawl for Howard's two-bit hustler to take him under his wing. Overnight, the kid is transformed into the bare-knuckle circuit's latest chump.

And he is a chump, for no one cares whether he wins or dies. It's all an evening's pastime, around which ungodly amounts of money float in terms of bets and a winner-take-all purse. You have to like the fact that nobody's very smart here. Everyone works off instincts of self-preservation.

Montiel drenches you in the mood of the street and the atmosphere of the fights. He watches how people react to provocation and fear and how an environment can catch people up in a bloodlust like junkies to a fix. The fights are not shot for voyeurism or gore. His camera, guided by Stefan Czapsky ("Batman Returns"), prowls the scene watching people's faces, while the fight itself is sometimes an unsettling blur.

The dialogue reminds you of early David Mamet: seemingly inarticulate, random and repetitive, but expressive of the inner emotions of its characters. An experienced actor such as Howard or Luis Guzman (who plays an amoral fight promoter) can get enormous mileage from such writing. Yet Channing and Henao make the most of their opportunities, too: They fumble their words but still fall in love. Meanwhile, Altagracia Guzman is allowed to outright steal a couple of scenes as Henao's meddlesome grandmother, giving the film its one glimmer of humor.

The nominal villain, played by Brian White, and a back story about him and the fighter's harsh father, aren't fully realized. They are too pro forma to have much credibility. So the third act is weak and improbable, a little too neat.

No matter. "Fighting" makes both a solid second film and promising studio debut for Montiel. Here is a young filmmaker to watch.

Opens: Friday, April 24 (Rogue Pictures)