Writer/director Dito Montiel drops down a few rungs after his promising debut, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, with an undernourished drama about small-town fighter Shawn MacArthur (Channing Tatum) who comes to Manhattan where he meets two-bit hustler Harvey Boarden (Terrence Howard). Harvey introduces Shawn to a world of underground street fighting, and Shawn proves himself a viable money-maker with an early streak of hard-fought wins.
The well-filmed impromptu bouts are appropriately gritty and energetic, but it’s the film’s romantic aspirations between Shawn and cocktail waitress Zulay (Zulay Valez) that provide a much-needed emotional lift to the otherwise dead-end social atmosphere.
The ever-watchable Howard mixes things up with a quirky slowed-down accent that keeps you hanging on his every word, and Montiel cranks up the suspense with a third-act surprise climax that pays off nicely.
The film’s title puts aside any questions about the sort of genre story at hand, and to that end the filmmaker creates bare-knuckle fight sequences that have the kind of uncontained freestyle roaming quality of Martin Scorsese’s celebrated bar-brawl sequence in Mean Streets. Fighting seems like a no-brainer project for Montiel, one that he needed to get out of his system before moving back into an emotionally rarefied world as complex as that of his first film. Grade: B-
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