Sucker punch

“Handsome fighters never lose battles!”

“Handsome fighters never lose battles!”

Rated 2.0

Channing Tatum trying to emote in Fighting is like trying to start a 28-year-old car that has sat in the driveway for weeks during a chilly winter. The car spurts and sputters as the ignition key turns, gagging instead of roaring. The vehicle fails to spark up and doesn’t go anywhere.

Tatum, who I guess is being positioned as the next Patrick Swayze—he’s pretty, he can dance, and he can kick some ass!—has done some decent work in the past (see Stop-Loss), but he comes off as a mush-mouthed moron in this uneven street fighting movie. An amusing, eccentric turn by Terrence Howard almost saves the film—but not quite.

Tatum plays Shawn, a down-on-his-luck homeless guy trying to make it on the streets of New York City selling fake Harry Potter books and iPods. When a transaction goes screwy, he finds himself defending his merchandise with his unholy fists, all in front of shrewd street hustler and wannabe fight manager Harvey (Howard). After this faux Harry Potter melee, Harvey sets up Shawn for an underground fight, which he wins, and Harvey eventually lets Shawn crash on his couch as they plot their next big fighting move.

One of the big problems with the movie is that Tatum’s Shawn doesn’t seem physically capable of taking out any of his opponents. He faces off against numerous monsters that look like they could eat him alive, but Shawn mows them down with his mighty fists. It always seems as if he is outweighed and outclassed, but the script says Shawn will win, thus he does. None of the fights are convincing, and they lack suspense. While it’s sometimes cool to see David take out Goliath, this film is ridiculous.

As street fights go, the stupid pavement-and-garbage-can finale of Rocky V was more exciting. I actually spent part of my weekend watching mixed marital arts matches on TV, and those boring bouts were still far more interesting than what this film has to offer. There’s an indoor bout in some high-class house that features the fighters bashing each other’s heads on a tile floor. There’s another one atop a building which has the fighters rolling around in a renovated apartment. Everything in Fight Club was better than these scuffles.

Shawn’s childhood enemy Evan Hailey (Brian White) just happens to be an underground fighter in Manhattan too, and everything is building up to their fateful final bout. It seems Evan and Shawn were on a high school wrestling team together in Alabama, and Evan became their coach’s favorite. That coach was Shawn’s father, so there are some scores to settle. I’m not making any of this up.

Of course, we get the requisite love interest in Zulay Henao, who plays a character, oddly enough, named Zulay. She responds to Shawn’s lethargic romantic overtures, even though Shawn tried to push a counterfeit Potter book on her earlier in the film. I guess it’s because he’s cute or something.

Howard is the best thing about the movie, providing Harvey with a whiny street hustler vibe that actually reminds me a bit of Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy. If Tatum had half the charisma Jon Voight had alongside Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy, we might’ve had something with this film.

Instead, we get a mostly formulaic movie with a slumming central star and a supporting player who outshines him. I would pay to see another movie featuring Howard’s Harvey. As for Tatum’s mumbling Shawn, I have no problem with never seeing this stereotypical pastiche of a character again.