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. "Fighting"

Though it's his thirteenth film, this has all the earmarks of a major introduction to a relatively new leading man, especially as it's tailored to fit Channing Tatum's looks and martial arts capabilities. Showcasing skills, however, is a two-edged sword, revealing strong points and exposing limitations. In physical respects, Tatum ("Stop-Loss") has all the attributes of the ideal male, down to wearing clothes like a model (which he once was). He's got charm, an easy-going personality borne of the sourthern bayou of his childhood, and the athletic prowess of a man who won a full athletic college scholarship and wears belts in two forms of Kung fu. This guy's a screen idol in the making.

It all comes into play when, as Shawn MacArthur, a wrestler from a small southern town disgraced and self-exiled for having hit his father/coach, is selling whatever goods he can get on the streets of New York for the puny profit margin involved. Today it's books and in minutes from the time he sets his inventory down on the ground and starts hawking, he's got customers. Everyone seems to have a problem, though. The kooks and freeloaders he can handle but when a ring of scam artists distract him with a staged altercation, it allows one of them to grab his stash. As he gives chase he's blocked by one Harvey Boarden (Terrence Howard) to slow him down. But Harvey is not going to forget this fearless street fighter any time soon.

It's not long before Shawn is hawking umbrellas in a different part of town when Boardman spots him and asks him if he'd like to make five thousand dollars in an organized street fight. With no trust but a big need, Shawn goes for it and finds himself the pawn in an underground world of scuzzy fight managers where fortunes in bets are the name of the game and the purses go only to the winner. Broken body parts are the costs of doing business.

In the first fight, staged in a local establishment, Shawn comes up against a very quick all-out fighter with a furious barrage designed to put his opponent out fast. It may seem, for a moment, that Shawn is outclassed by the assault, but his adjustment shows his ability to take a beating and to adapt. Which doesn't mean that he's not in trouble. Only that he has to use his power to end this guy's attack.

He accomplishes this by jamming his opponent into a wall so hard it immobilizes him, leaving him inert on the ground. The room falls silent as Shawn takes his bows. There's a moment when Harvey and the guys who put these fights together are stunned in silence. You think uh, oh. Shawn is going to leave in police handcuffs. But, no. The promoters have lost their bets but they're impressed with the talent of Harvey's new boy. No one's going home in handcuffs. It's time for a little local celebration for Shawn, Harvey and the boys.

Harvey invites Shawn to stay with him in his NY digs while he drums up another fight and, hopefully, payday. This time he negotiates a Ten Thousand dollar purse with the smug gangster promoters, winner taking all. Seeing where this is going, Shawn is willing and able to move up in this shadowy circuit. With more wins it won't be long before five figures becomes six, and he's liking the sound of that even with having to deal with sociopathic thugs. That's where the quick money is.

At one of the clubs he meets single mother-nightclub waitress Zulay Valez (Zulay Henao, "Grizzly Park"), which gives him a chance to lay on the personal charm and boyish generosity. He runs into his old nemesis from his wrestling days, Evan Hailey, a slick, overconfident meatgrinder of a villain with the heavy threats and insults, and the washboard body to back up his insolence. Hailey is setting himself up as the biggest risk of all for our unblemished hero. Do we see who he'll be facing in the final fight when the money tonnage gets really big?

In his second time out, writer-director Dito Montiel ("A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints") tries to avoid cliches, but he's not exactly taking home a winner's belt for creativity. He doesn't, for example, make the fighter's sweetheart the threat that will force him to throw the fight. Instead, it's Harvey's life that's on the line. It's a bit ho-hum either way.

Here's a fight film, in any case, in which the fights are the leading source of interest and originality. I appreciated the fight diversity, making no two fights, or adversary, like any other, making the style of fight an expression of character.

Less can be said for the screenplay (forged by Montiel and Robert Munic), still less for the acting talent, and least for the ad-libby first take quality of the workshop acting. Throughout, it seems like the actors are covering and adapting to someone's weakness, bringing it all down to the lowest common denominator as they struggle with timing, overlapping dialogue, and hesitation.

It's possible more takes would have helped but in the mere fact that this is the commercial cut, you have to assume added takes, if they were tried, didn't make the dialogue scenes any better. Or, maybe, it was just a problem with the film budget.

The strange part is that the lack of polish turns into a storytelling choice that makes you root for the hero--not so much to win his bouts against all the odds, but to get his words out convincingly well. It puts you in his corner and, strangely, perhaps because Tatum is inherintly likable, a sympathetic attachment is maintained well enough for you to leave the theatre not complaining.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Channing Tatum
A street fighter with training.

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