Deserves a fighting chance ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Friday, June 19, 2009

Deserves a fighting chance

My rating:

Fighting. What a great title. Fighting. It's so straightforward. Fighting. It lets you know exactly what kind of movie it's gonna be, yet the sheer lack of pretentiousness tells you it has more to offer than the same old same old. Fighting. No less than Roger Ebert, the Grand Old Man of film criticism, recommended this movie. Fighting. For that reason alone, I made sure to catch what looked like a B-grade "ta kau" flick, expecting to be pleasantly surprised.

And I was - by the fact that it's not a "ta kau" flick at all.

Shawn MacArthur (Channing Tatum) ekes out a living on the streets of New York selling whatever crappy merchandise he can get his hands on. One day he gets into a brawl that is witnessed by Harvey Boarden (Terrence Howard), who invites him into the world of underground no-holds-barred prizefighting. As he begins to earn more and more money from his fights, he begins a romance with nightclub waitress Zulay (Zulay Henao) and crosses paths with another fighter (Brian White) with whom he has an ugly history.

Right from the opening scene, the movie hits you with how gritty and real it looks and feels. You know those guys along Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman or Bukit Bintang, busking or selling cheap crap or even just begging? This movie is about people like them, even if it is set thousands of miles away from KL. There is no glossy Hollywood sheen to this New York - even the extras look like real people from the real Brooklyn and the Bronx and other parts of the Big Apple that you'll likely never see - unless, like Shawn and Harvey, you move there hoping to pursue a dream, only to end up trading your dignity for every cent you can scrape off the streets. Their mutual struggle for respect forms a distinct theme that runs through the film; they're both on the low rungs of the social and economic ladder, and we see them both get stepped on by those above. The fact that a movie like this has an actual theme, and an effective one, is pretty damn pleasantly surprising.

The realism extends to the dialogue and acting as well. The dialogue has a raw, improvised feel - people mumble, talk over each other, start sentences without ending them, and this has the effect of eliminating any artificiality in the story. I'm totally overusing the word, but the dialogue feels real - which makes the story, the characters, and their whole world feel real as well. This is a rare accomplishment. And the actors sell it. Howard does his usual excellent work, and although Tatum is a little wooden, he is never unconvincing. And he does his best work here with Henao - there's a terrific chemistry between them, and the way he approaches her is at once bold yet respectful. Her interfering old mother, played by Altagracia Guzman, is also great fun.

I haven't even talked about the fight scenes yet. There's no fancy moves or Hong Kong-style choreography here - it's bone-crunchingly brutal, employing grappling techniques as much as punches and kicks. Strangely, Shawn's final fight (which, as usual in this kind of movie, is personal) isn't the most thrilling. That would be the one against Cung Le, a Vietnamese-American MMA champion. That fight is filmed with the most flair, and has the most imaginative choreography. It's strange that the film pulled out all its stops for this scene, and not the climactic one - which highlights a problem with the movie's ending as a whole. It feels truncated, as if director Dito Montiel had suddenly run out of film.

I know this movie is going to be a tough sell. The plot is formulaic, the action scenes are competent but unexceptional, and most people will never see it as anything other than a "ta kau" flick. But where this movie shines is in the execution - dialogue, acting, characterization, even art direction. And of course, that great title. Fighting! It's not so straightforward a title, actually. There's plenty of fighting in the movie, only not all with fists.

NEXT REVIEW: State of Play
Anticipation level: fingers crossed