Writing about A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, the 2006 debut film by director Dito Montiel, I likened it to the sort of crude but fascinating object one might find in an exhibition of naif art. Adapted by Montiel — a former hardcore punk musician — from his autobiographical novel about his teenage delinquency on the streets of Astoria, Queens, the movie (which won the directing prize at Sundance) was a ragged, misshapen mess, with scenes that started and stopped arbitrarily and seemed cut together any which way, but its gutteral power was undeniable. It was as if the movie had been kicking around violently in Montiel's head for decades before finally dislodging itself, at which point it got into our heads and stayed there for a good long while.
Montiel's second film, Fighting, feels like it's been kicking around somewhere for a while too — in the office of a studio development executive eager to find more The Fast and the Furious-style catnip for the urban adrenaline-junkie crowd.
Like the Furious franchise, Fighting purports to offer us an insider's view of an illicit underground subculture that comes alive just as the city's ordinary, decent denizens go to bed. Here, it's the world of bare-knuckles brawling, whose competitors fight not out of emasculated rage against an overly commodified society like the angry young men of Fight Club, but simply because they enjoy it, or because it's the only thing they're good at, or because there's money to be made. The last is the impetus for Shawn MacArthur (Saints alum Channing Tatum), a romanticized vision of the cornpone rube trying to make it in the big city — a 21st-century Joe Buck — who, in one of the more fanciful notions of Montiel and co-screenwriter Robert Munic, is first shown eking out his fleabag-motel existence by selling counterfeit Harry Potter books on a Rockefeller Center sidewalk.
Never mind that you've never seen anyone as chiseled and freshly scrubbed as Tatum hocking black-market goods on the streets of Manhattan: He's somehow all of a piece with the movie's loopy vision of the city, where enterprising hustlers sell refrigerators out of the backs of vans in broad daylight and crowds of onlookers (including a large number of senior citizens) gather in the community room of a Brooklyn church to watch a couple of hungry young comers beat the living shit out of each other. Where A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints carried such a vivid sense of place that you felt as if Montiel knew every one of those humid Astoria alleyways firsthand, Fighting seems to unfold in a New York learned primarily from other movies — specifically those of the pre-Giuliani grindhouse era — no matter that the setting is present day. When Shawn, whose pugilistic skills are spotted early on by a sweet-talking ticket-scalper-cum-fight-promoter (Terrence Howard), does battle against one Asian challenger, the bout takes place in a gaudy, orientalized hotel room (complete with transsexual hostesses) that seems on loan from Year of the Dragon. Afterward, everyone adjourns to what I'm fairly positive is the disco club from We Own the Night, where Shawn meets Zulay (Zulay Henao) — "Zulay? Like July?" — the movie's resident single-mom-trying-to-make-ends-meet-who-happens-to-have-a-really-fine-ass.
Montiel seems incapable of making an ordinary bad movie — he's too much of a willful eccentric, with a casual disregard for things like backstory, character development and narrative tension and a high indulgence for eccentric performers like Howard (here playing an unholy cross between Ratso Rizzo and Mr. Miyagi) and Tatum (who may be the most sullen and inexpressive leading man this side of Josh Hartnett; the critics who have compared him to Robert De Niro must be thinking of De Niro's occasional, ill-advised talk-show appearances). If Montiel was going to fail, it was bound to be spectacular, and Fighting bears that out in spades. The discursive style that managed to suit Saints is all wrong for a movie that needs the stripped-down engine of an American International Pictures quickie: For most of Fighting, Montiel denies us such basic information as how long Shawn has been in New York and why he came there — he seems to have just materialized on the F train — and when we do finally find out, it's only courtesy of another character's random act of Googling. This may also be the first movie about underground fighting in which there isn't so much as a single scene of the police busting up a brawl — or anyone even worrying that the police might bust up a brawl — and the only movie about fighting of any kind without so much as a single training sequence (save for a fleeting glimpse of Shawn doing push-ups on the subway, which only reinforces the idea that he was incubated there).
There's no shortage of other clichés, from the former high school rival against whom Shawn ultimately has to prove himself to the inevitable fight-fixing quandary, but Montiel is too high-minded to really embrace any of them, and the movie never works up a pulpy head of steam. It's like an exploitation movie that thinks it's an art movie, only there's no art to be found. You know you're in trouble when there isn't a single fight scene in a picture called Fighting with half the brute-force intensity of the kitchen table free-for-all that erupted midway through Saints. There are a few good chuckles to be had, however, from the climactic knock-down drag-out, which wreaks its own brand of property devaluation on a nouveau riche penthouse in some stage of construction or renovation. By that point, you may find yourself wondering if Fighting is, in fact, one big put-on. If so, the joke is squarely on the movie.