Embattled is a clichéd story of a father and son’s MMA conflict, laid low by a failure to capture the essence of the sport it depicts.
Embattled tells the story of a young upstart MMA fighter who ends up on a path to battle his own father, a championship pugilist. The film endeavors to craft a complex portrait of an abusive father-son relationship where the traumas of childhood echo into adulthood. It’s an interesting thematic framework to apply to world of mixed martial arts, alas the filmmaking is not up to the task.
I cannot help but shake the feeling that writer David McKenna (American History X) read an article about the UFC’s poor treatment of labor, heard of Ronda Rousey, watched a handful of boisterous Irish pugilist Conor McGregor’s worst moments at press conferences, and decided he had learned all he needed to write a movie steeped in the culture of MMA. What McKenna’s screenplay presents is not so much an embodiment of the sports as it is a reader of The New Yorker’s disgust at Dana White’s carnival bloodsport. As a fan of mixed martial arts in all its absurdist glory, it caused me whiplash to see the film bounce between exacting specificity in the minutiae of unfair MMA revenue sharing practices to fundamental misunderstandings of how an actual MMA fight works. One sequence sees the fighters executing a series of jiu jitsu moves while the commentator – actual MMA fighter and commentator Kenny Florian – calls out the names of jiu jitsu moves. Only, the moves he’s referencing are not the moves happening on the screen. To cross the sports streams for a moment, it’s as though you were watching a basketball movie and the commentator was talking about the star player’s slam dunk while the player was actually shooting a three pointer. It’s hard to make a movie and I’m not trying to pick quibbles, but this lack of attentiveness permeates the entire project.
Embattled doesn’t even bother to sell our young protagonist as a superstar MMA prospect. In real life, a handsome, well-spoken teen capable of besting top 15 fighters would be an absolute superstar, and in the movie’s world he’s just a sweet anonymous high school kid who is nice to his special needs brother. Here, the character needs to be educated on the sorts of moves a brand new jiu jitsu practitioner would learn in the first few weeks of training.
I’m all for suspending disbelief and letting a movie work its magic. The greatest MMA movie, Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior, sees an insanely contrived tournament create an excuse for a brother vs brother showdown. It’s dopey if you think about it too much, but serves thematic purpose and, at the least, the movie takes the time to help the viewer understand how each fighter achieves his success. One is a contemplative grappler who seeks to avoid damage and use his opponent’s aggression against him; the other is a bruising barbarian happy to take two punches in order to deliver one. Embattled tells a similar story of family brought to blows in the octagon, but without the heart or credibility. Instead, we see a weak caricature of Conor McGregor and a budget male Ronda Rousey forced into father-son combat as a result of the sort of cartoonish bad parenting villainy that would make telenovela writers blush.
Stephen Dorff (excellent in the most recent season of True Detective) plays the father as a caricature version of Conor McGregor, the MMA fighter famed for his boisterous pronouncements and exorbitant lifestyle. Dorff brings a gruff sort of toxic masculinity to the role, but the character is rendered so far beyond the parameters of normal human behavior as to come off as schtick. Darren Mann (Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) quite simply lacks the gravity to play a young MMA fighter. He never once feels like the sort of person who could step into a cage and fight someone for money. Poor Elizabeth Reaser (Twlight) plays Dorff’s ex-wife, Mann’s mother, and she is stuck delivering some of the most clichéd dialogue I’ve seen in a movie all year. She does her best, but nobody could humanize this part. Quality actors like Said Taghmoui (Cairo Time) show up in brief roles, but are not given sufficient time to stand out. Production values are soft as well, including fights that are incomprehensibly edited and simply do not remotely reflect how actual MMA fights play out.
The sad part is that someday somebody is going to make a truly great film set in the world of MMA. Numerous masterpieces have arisen from the world of boxing – a sport where hard men stave off rough beginnings to make huge sums of money and achieve glory. Mixed martial arts has the same general appeal as boxing as a storytelling device, but adds a different sort of blue collar element to the mix. MMA gyms are full of practitioners who aspire not for championship glory, but towards a few grand in a local underground scrap. MMA, in an apparent oxymoron, is also a sport steeped in honorable combat, the classic cultural elements of karate – all the noble warrior tropes that define much of Asian action and epic cinema can be purposed into the story of people who fight not out of inherent violence, but out of self-improvement. It’s a sport that can be used as an apparatus for all sorts of interesting character studies. Unfortunately, Embattled is not the film to bring a great MMA story to the masses.
Embattled will be available in select US theaters and on Video On-Demand November 20.
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