Every so often, there's a movie like Fighting: a gritty, urban multicultural potboiler that's WAY BETTER than it has any right to be. Films like the original The Fast and the Furious or Dark Blue are B movies, to be sure, but they crackle with so much earnest talent that they practically feel like something new.
Shawn (Channing Tatum, drawling and brooding) sells counterfeit Harry Potter books on the New York City streets for pocket change until he runs into Harvey (Terrence Howard, who charms by endlessly running his mouth), a hustler who decides that Shawn could clean up on the underground fight circuit. Of course there's a girl (Zulay Henao, a gorgeous and weary single mom), and of course Shawn accidentally runs into a nemesis from his childhood (Brian J. White, oozing smarmy confidence) whom he will eventually encounter in a climactic battle. It's a fight movie, a well-worn formula.
But the fighting in Fighting is fast and painful (there are no slo-mo shots or superhuman abilities here; it's just meat hitting meat for a $10,000 prize). The New York these characters live in is appropriately hellish (Fighting is a Dante's Inferno–style tour of the increasingly opulent, and morally corrupt, circles of New York, from Brooklyn to the Bronx to Koreatown to Manhattan), and the characters feel genuine. Despite a third-act dramatic twist that doesn't exactly work, the great performances in Fighting—especially Howard and Tatum—give the material a raw urgency that sparkles, creating a sexy, likable underdog of a film about sexy, likable underdogs.