Montiel’s New York has sustained its charm because it remains true to the kind of mythic redefinition of the city as a den of wonderfully obnoxious, paranoid dreamers that are always puffing themselves up twice as large as they really are. In it, I see the Queens of my youth rendered into an all-too-believable caricature, the kind that’s more real than reality. In Fighting, everyone’s out to get something and even if they try to get it through the clichéd tropes of a post-Rocky genre pic, they do so through the myths and stereotypes that the various minority clans carry with them (never heard of a “Puerto Rican shower” before the film but I love the fact that I’m honestly not sure if it’s a real expression or not). It’s a colorful mix of home-grown demons and in-jokes that rejects the myth of the great American melting pot and instead champions the myth of the city as a ragged patchwork of conflicting symbols and stories that only touch one other through their proximity.
Montiel is so in love with the cliques of the city’s various minorities that he gives The Warriors a run for its money in its comic book factionalism. In Brooklyn there’s the Russians; in the Bronx, the Latinos; in Queens, the Chinese; in Manhattan, the Afro-Americans. This is the city as defined by the hard stares of people that look at non-natives as intruders, reversing the traditional presentation of the minority as “other” that has long pervaded Western fiction and hence criticism. These blocs make the city’s history but unlike the white kids in Sollett’s New York ala Nick and Norah, they won’t give it to you without a fight.
Enter our hero Shawn MacArthur (rising star Channing Tatum), a fugitive from Birmingham, Alabama and a quintessential Montiel hustler as defined by his manager Harvey Boarden (Terrence Howard) as “someone that can’t win that wins.” Under Harvey’s wing, Shawn takes up bare-knuckle brawling so he doesn’t have to sell bootlegs of Harry Potter and umbrellas in Times Square. He’s not strictly skilled at scrapping nor is he consistently lucky—his first two fights are called off thanks to a water fountain and a tipped-over beer. Still, through his own tenacity, he wheedles his way into the company of Boarden, his rival Evan (Brian J. White) and his new girl Zulay (Zulay Valez) and gets his own self-fashioned introduction to The Big Apple.
There’s multiple levels of unreality throughout Fighting, but they all work in their own way in service of the film’s gritty, magically realistic vibe, even the creative decisions that are more than likely the product of studio tampering (I’m thinking specifically of the lack of blood and the latent homosexuality of Boarden’s character that looks to have likewise been deemed unnecessary in post). Little details, like the fact that the Empire Diner where Shawn wooes Zulay, hasn’t been around for about two years, suggesting that the film’s been in production for a long while now, make the film’s New York so endearing and adds more detail to the myth of Montiel as a similarly self-taught hustler.
Note: I cannot get over how satisfying the cast for the film was. Altagracia, Luis Guzman and all the rest mentioned above were really very wonderful.