Terrence Howard’s performance in “Fighting” is so bizarrely strange and awful that it occurred to me he might be hoping we didn’t realize it was him. Howard plays Harvey, a street hustler who discovers Shawn, a gifted young boxer (Channing Tatum) and sets up a series of underground, all-or-nothing, no-rules street fights. All Tatum has to do is punch, take punches, and mumble inarticulately whenever he sees the lovely Zulay (Zulay Valez). Howard has to pontificate, hide his money, confess to having been badly treated by his former partners, and ask Shawn to take a dive. Neither one manages to pull it off.
The film does have two things going for it. First is its conceit of multi-million dollar underground organizations that promote illegal street boxing (and the betting thereon) from behind hidden doors under the baseball hat racks in tiny little souvenir stores. That is the only logical explanation I have ever seen for the persistence of those shops, which never seem to have any customers. The second is the marvelous Altagracia Guzman as Zulay’s grandmother. As she did in the superb “Raising Victor Vargas,” Guzman is at once hilarious, endearing, and completely authentic. She provides moments of pure poetry. A small nod to the Foley artist, as well. The sound effects for all the whams and bashes may be cartoony — you almost expect Wile E. Coyote to show up with a package from Acme — but they are entertaining.
But the rest of the film is just dumb and dull. I think the screenplay is punchdrunk. Shawn needs money. He likes to fight. So, fight #1 he surprises everyone. Shawn is hiding something. Fight #2 is against a really big guy. He surprises everyone again, except for the audience. Then there are a few more fights, some old scores to settle, some revelations, some reactions to the revelations (I understand and sympathize! I am disappointed and betrayed! Both!) and everyone goes home. Kidding! The big, big fight is yet to come and as they like to say in movie tag lines, this time it’s personal.
It takes some serious effort to de-star and de-actor Howard and Tatum, but director-co-author Dito Montiel manages. This fight film needs to stay down for the count.