The rules of the streets are clear: If a brawl ensues, you fight too. It doesn’t matter who threw the first punch or instigated the fracas. A blow at your friend is an attack on the group.
It’s odd, then, that Miguel (Tyler Dean Flores), the protagonist of Miguel Wants to Fight, a spry and entertaining film directed by Oz Rodriguez, has never even thrown a punch. His friends aren’t habitual fighters, but even they’ve found themselves in the middle of a melee or two. Plus, Miguel’s dad (Raúl Castillo) runs a boxing studio and the kid’s obsessed with Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.
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So, what gives? Is it inexperience? (Yes). Lack of confidence? (That too). Fear? (Bingo).
In Miguel Wants to Fight, the eponymous character seeks out a skirmish to avoid telling his friends about his family’s impending move. It’s a simple premise that writers Jason Concepcion and Shea Serrano use to tell a surprisingly heartwarming and relatable story.
Miguel loves his life in Syracuse. School days are long, but at least he gets to spend time with his best friends David (Christian Vunipola), Cass (Imani Lewis) and Srini (Suraj Partha). They go on ambling walks, play basketball and recreate their favorite fight sequences. At the beginning of the film, we see Miguel editing one of these videos, a wide grin plastered on his face.
The news that he’s moving to Albany in one week for his mother’s new job hits Miguel hard. Unable to imagine a day without his friends, the high-school junior avoids reality to chase a misguided dream. Miguel wants to tussle with a stranger so he can fight like and, most importantly, with his friends. He wants to prove to Cass, Srini and David that he’ll always have their back.
It’s a credit to the cast and Rodriguez’s assured direction that we believe Miguel’s efforts stand a chance. The usually passive student conscripts his friends to help him devise a plan, ignoring their questions about his sudden motivations and odds of success. Flores plays Miguel with a stubborn optimism that translates to subtle charm. We understand why his friends give up their rapid interrogation to help him lay the ground rules for his mission. We’re rooting for Miguel, too.
The rules of Operation Miguel Fights (unofficial title) are more complicated than those of the streets. The young warrior can only fight someone he knows, he can’t throw the first punch and he must stay away from the most feared student, Damien Delgado (Juan Abdias). The plan seems easy enough, especially when laid out by Cass and Srini — calm and encouraging co-conspirators — but putting it into action is far more difficult.
Most of Miguel Wants to Fight plays out like a video game, with levels operating as discrete vignettes. Monica Palmer’s chromatic graphic design adds a retro computerized element to the film’s playful visual language. A funky score (by Rafael Lazzaro) plus energetic sound design — sports commentator voiceovers when Miguel approaches his target, for example — firmly anchor us in this distinctive character’s world.
These kinds of delightful elements, coupled with Concepcion and Serrano’s witty screenplay, keep the film nimble. The fights, choreographed by Junchang Lu, have an intentionally goofy edge to them, reflective of the teenager whose daydreams they spring from — and an homage to the heroes whose posters are all over Miguel’s bedroom wall.
But the laughs aren’t so overwhelming that we forget the heart of the story. While Miguel is trying and failing to start a fight, David worries about his oldest friend’s motivations. The depth of their relationship unfurls over the course of the film. The two are more like brothers; after David’s father, a champion boxer, died, Miguel’s family took extra care of him and his mother.
Vunipola’s David is a reserved, almost stoic figure, marked by years of grief. He’s trying to do better in school, to leave the fighting behind so he can make good on his promise to his father. Rodriguez, for the most part, maintains an appropriate balance between the dramatic elements of David’s story (a subtle nod to Creed) and the light action-comedy.
What does chafe a bit in Miguel Wants to Fight, especially near its end, is the repetitive nature of the protagonist’s failed battles. Each opponent presents a unique challenge — Miguel tries to go up against a jock, a student who made fun of his knockoff Jordans and a racist white kid at school — but the anticipation of failure makes it easy for them to blur together. It’s hard for our minds not to wander away from the dropkicks and backhand chops and wonder, instead: When will Miguel face his real fears?
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