It’s tough not to like Shawn MacArthur (Channing Tatum). In addition to his boyish good looks, he is a young man who still stands when women enter a room, treats the elderly with respect and is trying to stay out of trouble. He’s also attempting to make a little money hawking books in the downtown. Unfortunately, his positive attributes don’t bode well for him in a city full of criminals and con men.
Among those shady swindlers is Harvey Boarden (Terrence Howard), a two-bit hustler whose approach to business bears a remarkable resemblance to the classic crime boss Fagin in literature’s Oliver Twist. In addition to his petty scam operations, Harvey is looking for a street fighter to throw into New York’s underground entertainment industry where wealthy gamblers bet cash on something supposedly more sophisticated than cockfights. Parading their “stock” around the street before pitting them against each other in back alleys, palatial penthouses or church halls, agents like Harvey hope to make money on the “winner takes all, no holds barred” matches.
After Shawn has his wares and cash stolen by Harvey’s hired urchins, he is desperate for money. That, combined with the fact that he is good with his fists, makes him finally agree to Harvey’s offer for employment.
But, like the teen flick Never Back Down, these exhibitions are pure slugfests. In one scene, a man is forcibly pushed into a wall where he smashes his skull on a ceramic drinking fountain before slumping to the ground. Two other characters duke it out in a marble-floored lobby where both fighters repeatedly have their heads and bodies slammed unceremoniously against the unforgiving surface. (I’m not a medical professional but I doubt either one of them would be walking away without severe concussions.) Later, two fighters grapple in a construction site where one man is thrown against a plate glass window again and again. Yet the only injuries portrayed are mild facial abrasions, a few bloody cuts and an ear lobe mangled by a bullet after a disgruntled spectator fires a gun into the crowd of onlookers. Worst of all, it isn’t jeering teens baiting on the combatants but well-heeled, influential adults.
Rather than focusing solely on brawls, moviemakers attempt to round out the story by showing Shawn’s empathetic side. His charitable feelings for a struggling young waitress (Zulay Henao), however, develop into something a little more passionate than com-passionate after he tries to help her with her rent. There are also moments motivated by principles rather than greed.
Nevertheless, in a town where everyone is a hustler, it is almost impossible to keep your nose clean—or at least unbroken. So it is no surprise when even Shawn succumbs to his own kind of illegal racket. Apparently, in this world of thieves, there is no point fighting against the inevitable.