Dito Montiel's sophomore film, "Fighting", is just as electric and startling as his debut 2006 effort, "A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints"... and I was still the only one in the theater on both occasions. Whether it's the film's premise of underground fighting or the lackluster advertising, another Montiel film is relegated to eventual seek-and-find status on home video- a bleak outlook for such a gifted and realized young director.
Starring his now apparent alter-ego Channing Tatum, "Fighting" holds a simple premise that unfolds in natural and unhurried fashion. Struggling for cash daily, selling bootleg Harry Potter books and Video Ipods on the street for $20, Tatum plays Sean MacArthur. One day, after a failed attempt to steal his stash of already probably stolen merchandise, Sean meets Harvey (a deceptively good Terrence Howard with a true 70's cinema name). Harvey realizes the raw talent in Sean to defend himself with his knuckles and the two soon develop a friendship that includes the entry into the high stakes world of underground fighting- although "underground" is a relative term since every fight is a distinguishable and unique setting perched somewhere high (or dark) in and around New York City. Along the way, Sean meets Zulay (Zulay Henao), a struggling waitress in a high class bar and the two form a relationship. Also embedded in this survival story are some illusions to Sean's volatile past, which eventually manifests itself in a fight between an old friend.
With just two films under his belt, I'm fully ready to proclaim writer/director Dito Montiel as a young autuer in the making. Both films reveal a talent beneath the surface that's boiling to create something truly great. In "Fighting", he takes the well-worn genre of the masculine showdown movie (think horrid teen precursors like "Never Back Down") and turns it inside out, developing smart characters and tender interactions between Sean and Zulay that far exceed the genre's usual play-by-numbers approach. As a director of actors, Montiel seems to already have that figured out as well. The initial meeting between Howard and Tatum on the street is handled with intelligence. Just watch how Harvey tenuously keeps his distance from Sean, clearly laying out his expectations. It's a small moment, but one that feels very true. Likewise, Montiel is adept at displaying the awkward fits and starts that encircles every relationship at the beginning. The scenes between Zulay and Tatum are wonderful. The framing from outside a cramped NY apartment window as the two carry on a late night conversation.... the nervousness in an apartment stairway... Montiel has already made a burgeoning career of young love developing on fire escapes and hallways and it all feels so right.
And then there's the fighting... the part of the film which is sure to bring in over 90% of the crowd. It's visceral. It means something. Very few films can capture the escalating moral or metaphysical consequences of their finale. P.T. Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" does it. Spike's Lee's "He Got Game" does it best. Montiel's "Fighting" is very close. It's bone crushing and stark, but it's win or lose outcome envelops the whole thing which only increases the audience's tension level and validates that Montiel has crafted a film that resonates on several levels.