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Underdog gets into lot of ‘Fighting’

Channing Tatum stars as fighter Shawn MacArthur in “Fighting.” Universal Pictures (Universal Pictures / The Spokesman-Review)
Channing Tatum stars as fighter Shawn MacArthur in “Fighting.” Universal Pictures (Universal Pictures / The Spokesman-Review)
David Germain Associated Press

The first rule of “Fight Club,” if you recall, was that you don’t talk about “Fight Club.”

The first rule of “Fighting,” it seems, is that you talk only to fill the gaps between all the fighting.

Channing Tatum has the proper presence as a bruiser rising to stardom in New York City’s underground fighting circuit. Yet he, co-star Terrence Howard and their castmates are stuck in a dull, cliche-sodden drama during the many moments when someone’s fist isn’t connecting with someone else’s jaw.

Tatum reunites with director Dito Montiel, who cast him in his autobiographical debut film “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,” set on the rough streets of Queens.

“Fighting” expands on the director’s intimate knowledge of the New York showcased in “Saints.” His follow-up feature offers a mix of seedy and swank locales that provide an interesting and lively backdrop for the fights.

But the heart and authenticity of the low-budgeted “Saints” – which earned Montiel the directing prize at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival – hit the canvas as he mucks about with a bigger Hollywood production.

“Fighting” has a tired old premise as an underdog finds a wise but down-and-out mentor to take him to the big time and a nice new girlfriend to lend him emotional support. Yo, Rocky!

Tatum’s Shawn MacArthur is a transplantee from Alabama, scraping out a living selling counterfeit books and CDs on the street. In the span of a few moments, he comes across hustler Harvey Boarden (Howard) and the lovely Zulay Valez (Zulay Henao; after Henao was cast, Montiel liked the sound of Zulay, which rhymes with “July,” and rechristened the character to match).

Harvey has connections in the underground fighting scene, and from a couple of wicked punches Shawn throws in a sidewalk brawl, he figures this kid has what it takes to knock people’s lights out.

Hours later, they just happen to stumble into each other at a restaurant, and a beautiful friendship is formed as Harvey becomes his manager and Shawn becomes an overnight sensation on the illicit fight circuit.

The forgettable script drowns in boring dialogue, including incoherent monosyllabic scenes where Shawn and Harvey seem to engage in a mumbling duel.

But you don’t go to see a movie called “Fighting” for the patter. You go for the fisticuffs, and here, Montiel delivers with some nasty bare-knuckle rows that should satisfy fans’ bloodlust.

Tatum has an impressive physique, but he’s so clearly outclassed by the skilled boxers and martial-arts experts he goes up against that his success creates a serious credibility gap for the film.

Then there’s the major twist of fate as Shawn keeps running into Evan Hailey (Brian White), an old wrestling teammate who’s now an extreme-fighting star. The two share a scrappy history centered on a not-very-interesting mystery relating to Shawn’s estrangement from his father.

You just know the first time these alpha pups meet, they’re going to end up beating each other to a pulp before the credits roll.

For times and locations, see page C6.
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