When people like me are pressed to justify our love of those nasty, horrid exploitation movies of the 1970s - and I should mention that people like me are never actually pressed to make this justification, for the other people, not like me, are usually content simply to ignore people like me and dispose of the entire corpus of grind house cinema with a broad-ranging "Garbage! All of it!" and proceed to ooh and aah over mediocre Oscarbait without ever realising that people like me existed in the first place. But people like me are also given to florid turns of rhetoric - one of the objectively good reasons that anybody should be able to support is that exploitation films, by dint of being produced quickly and on the cheap, don't get to dress up real-world settings in heavy production design. For a B-picture, reality often is production design, and this is never truer than in those particular exploitation films which are set on the streets of major American cities. It is a perfect combination: the filmmaker is too broke to use anything but the actual location as it actually looks; and at the same time, the film is probably (being exploitation) a visceral matter of thieves and killers, pimps and whores, and so the reality being depicted is of a particularly gritty texture. These exploitation films, I mean to say, are as squalid as their enemies suggest, but their squalor is entirely real and therefore the best part of their value.

Nobody could be more surprised than I that this musing about the documentary value of exploitation cinema was occasioned by a new Channing Tatum picture, but there you go. Not that Fighting is really an exploitation film, even less than it is a documentary. But in the early going, as much as fully the first half of the movie's 105 minutes, it's more than a little tempting to mount a defense of it along exactly those lines. In the film, Tatum plays Shawn MacArthur, a young seller of counterfeit goods who has an unexpected gift for fighting, which he accidentally demonstrates one morning to a shady ticket broker and sometime promoter named Harvey Boarden (Terrence Howard). Harvey immediately spots in Shawn his own ticket back to the fast lane, and he pushes the young man into a series of underground brawls, which take place in disreputable holes throughout New York City.

A great deal of the film consists of very little more than Harvey shepherding Shawn from one place to another, with the enthusiasm of a demented tour guide whose out-of-town client insists on seeing "the real New York". From a broken-down church in Brooklyn to a filty alley in the Bronx, all the way to a posh penthouse in downtown Manhattan, the two men take in a panoramic slide-show of all the parts of the city that nice people aren't supposed to think about. All this local color is obviously candy for director Dito Montiel, a native New Yorker whose debut feature A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (also featuring Tatum) was set in similarly poverty-wracked neighborhoods. He certainly has a tremendously gifted eye for capturing the essence of a part of the city's identity, the kind of of unerring knowledge of exactly how to frame a location so that it expresses its soul instantly that can only come from a lifetime in that place.

There are many cinematic New Yorks, more than any other city I can name; and this is sensible, for it is perhaps the most mythological of all modern urban centers. For my tastes, though, I've always preferred the films that present New York as a blasted hellhole, and Fighting is the very best of that kind of movie that we've had in many long ages, perhaps as long as since Martin Scorsese stopped making movies about the city. It is filmed by Stefan Czapsky (Tim Burton's former collaborator!) with a colorful, grimy intimacy that unabashedly showcases all of the oozing pores that the filmmakers can find, but never makes its settings seem unpleasant or unlivable, even though they are ugly. For this is where people live, people who are not at all well-off in life; to capture the essence of those places on celluloid is not a glamorous job, but a necessary one, and Montiel and his crew deserve all the respect and admiration in the world for that success.

As is often the case in location-intensive movies, Fighting loses its way drastically the more it is about its own story. The A-story, in which Shawn becomes a great fighter and has to balance his desire to prove himself with Harvey's hunger for money, is serviceable and familiar, if not terribly interesting; however, the major subplot concerning Shawn's attempts to romance a single mother (Zulay Henao) who waits tables at Havey's favorite club, is bad altogether, underdeveloped and completely uninteresting, studded in apparently because Montiel and his co-writer Robert Munic are aware that movies about young sports stars who rise too quickly commonly have romantic B-stories. Though this plot does give the film one of its best characters and best performances, in the feisty grandmother (Altagracia Guzman) who is utterly disgusted by this hunky white boy who is trying to break into her family.

Other than her, the acting is mostly functional, if it is not less: Terrence Howard isn't a great performer but he's professional enough that you're never embarrassed to watch him, but Channing Tatum's one trick is as it was always been that he has an extremely well-toned abdomen and a face that's very pretty in a lunky meathead sort of way. But acting? Perish the thought! Tatum is no more untalented than many of the other pretty boys of his generation, yet that still leaves plenty of room for him to suck the wind out of the movie every time he opens his mouth. I will say this on behalf of the film's cast: Luis Guzmán, in a small role playing a rival promoter, demonstrates once again that there is no such thing as a motion picture in which Luis Guzmán is not a tremendously delightful person to watch onscreen.

The fighting scenes that are the film's titular raison d'être are fine or very good, although there are only four of them, and the last one comes at a great remove from the rest. Nothing about the fight choreography is balletic or lovely here: this is the kind of fighting that you win by being the last one upright, and if that means throwing your opponent through a window or smashing his head on a sink, then that is what you shall have to do. They're actually quite brutal, not as gory as a PG-13 rating will allow but still violent: more violent than entertaining, I'd wager, which is also something I'm inclined to praise the film for achieving.

By all means, this is not a great film, nor even an especially great entertainment; yet it serves one purpose exquisitely well, and tells a clichéd story with enough sincerity that you don't have to be too generous to forgive the clichés. I am shocked that I would ever find anything with large doses of Tatum to be this engaging and - dare I say it? - enlightening, but that's one of the great charms of minor little movies that nobody thinks about: sometimes, you can be really surprised.