Following the success of his debut, 'A Guide to Recognising Your Saints', director Dito Montiel reunites with star Channing Tatum for a film with a bigger budget, some recurring themes (loyalty, family and trust) and the same backdrop - New York city. Given the name, you don't have to be the best 'Murder, She Wrote' sleuth to deduce that this is not a period drama - but it does have its mysteries.
Having left his Alabama hometown in controversial circumstances, former college wrestler Shawn MacArthur (Tatum) is struggling from day-to-day in the Big Apple, selling counterfeit goods to make enough for a room for the night. When a group of young hustlers start causing problems for him during the lunchtime trade, MacArthur tries to fix the problem with his fists, only to lose most of his takings in the process. That night, however, he runs into the ringleader, Harvey Boarden (Howard), gets his money back and receives an offer: if it's cash he needs, Harvey can set up bouts in the city's underground fight circuit.
The ads say that 'Fighting' is "Rocky for a new generation", that's being over generous as it never exudes the same loser-becomes-a-winner charm as Stallone's first major film. Nor is it going to win the Oscar for Best Picture. It is, however, a watchable bit of youth market hokum, even if conveying the message that throttling other people illegally for money can help you put the past behind you is as suspect as Harvey Boarden's day job.
Ironically given the title, it does actually feel like there are two films scrapping each other: the throwaway, popcorn experience and a more memorable character study. Not a man who was hit with the gene pool's ugly stick, Tatum came across as just another looker in box office hit 'Step Up' and then showed he could really act in 'A Guide to Recognising Your Saints'. Here he gets stuck somewhere between the two and throughout you feel that a grittier offering was needed to bring out the best in him. As for Howard, he's the best thing about this film and his performance - summoning the spirit of Dustin Hoffman in 'Midnight Cowboy' - gets the mix of humour, poignancy and bravado just right. There are good scenes involving the two of them - more were needed.
There are other missed opportunities. The back story involving Tatum's character and his arch rival (White) is very poorly realised. What the young hero wanted to achieve by coming to New York is never explained. Howard and Guzman - playing former best friends - don't get enough time together. How a director who has shown so much talent previously can overlook these things really is a job for Jessica Fletcher. And the longer you watch, the more you wonder what Montiel was trying to achieve, and whether something got lost between the screenplay he co-wrote and what's ended up in cinemas.
Young men looking for an adrenaline rush should find the action scenes to their liking. Hopefully they'll leave the cinema realising that - no matter how tough someone is - there's always a better fighter. And a better film.