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fighting-posterIf you don’t know who Channing Tatum is you’re probably older than sixteen. If you’re curious go look in your daughter’s bedroom right now. To the left of the Zac Efron shrine is very likely a poster of the buff young actor. Compared to Johnny Depp and Efron Tatum is a minor deity, a good looking guy whose main claim to fame has been a couple of teen dance movies and a guest spot on CSI: Miami. At twenty-nine-years-old the chiseled actor is now straddling the line between teen fare and adults roles. He’s had a couple of stabs at adult fame in films that failed, but his new one, Fighting, co-starring Terence Howard, is a good transitional movie for him; a film with enough action for the kids and enough grit for the adults.

Story wise Fighting doesn’t break any new ground. It’s a classic underdog story. It’s Billy Elliot with choke holds or Rocky without the gloves. Tatum is Shawn MacArthur a scrappy New York City street kid with a troubled past. When he crosses paths with small time hustler Harvey Boarden (Terrence Howard) the two go into bare knuckle fight business—Harvey has the contacts, Shawn has the fists of fury. Shawn becomes a street fighting champion but his success and money don’t ease his troubled mind.

Set in the down-and-dirty NYC unseen since movies like Across 110th Street, Fighting is the New York Rudy Giuliani tried so hard to sanitize. Hustlers are everywhere, underground fighting is big business and nothing good ever happens after 10 pm. It’s a nice, unsentimental backdrop to the story, and with handheld camera in hand director Dito Montiel takes pains to use the cityscape to create a volatile and exciting atmosphere.

In terms of volatile Fighting certainly lives up to its name. The ouch-inducing fight scenes are brutal in their realism, with every smack and punch lovingly recorded in bone splitting surround sound. They are the film’s center pieces, but the fight scenes don’t get in the way of the story or vice versa. There’s a nice balance between the action and narrative, although a love story slows the momentum in the second half.

The film is jam packed with naturalistic performances. Nicely cast supporting roles like Roger Guenveur Smith who seems to be channeling Christopher Walken as the sleazy bookie Jack Dancing and the scene stealing Alba Guzmán as the nosy grandmother are complimented by effective background actors (like Loud Club Wannabe and Flawless Woman Number 1) who effectively add to the film’s realistic mood.

Tatum isn’t likely to win any trophies for his work unless the Elliptical Trainers of America bring back their Buff Awards this year but he brings his character to life, even giving him a few unexpected dimensions. Who knew street fighters were so polite?

The one to watch is Terrence Howard, who after a disappointing run of average work in films like August Rush and even Iron Man, hands in an edgy performance that mixes street smarts with some effeminate mannerisms to create his most memorable character since Hustle and Flow.

Fighting is a better than expected drama, that, while somewhat predictable, hooks the viewer with interesting characters and UFC-style flying fists.

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