Boxing films and movies about fighters and their redemption songs and character arcs have always pulled viewers in — from Wallace Beery’s The Champ in 1931 to the seminal fighter story of Rocky in 1976 to the Oscar-winning performance of Christian Bale in 2010’s The Fighter. These films tell the story of individuals who have hit rock bottom and are fighting to turn their lives around, those trying to gain respect from your family and love interest to those who are fighting (pun intended) to make a name for themselves and emerge out of a family members shadow. All of those things are at play in director Nick Sarkisov’s new film Embattled. Written by David McKenna, the writer behind 1998’s hard-hitting story of redemption and changing one’s course in life, American History X, Embattled packs just as much punch.
Cash “The Slayer” (Stephen Dorff) is an MMA fighter at the top of his game — he has the world at his fingertips — he’s got a beautiful young wife (Karrueche Tran), loads of money, a mansion on the hill, and a lifestyle that rivals Mike Tyson’s in his heyday. Cash is also hot-headed, brash, politically incorrect, and a complete asshole. But life hasn’t always been this way for him — no fighter starts at the top. They’ve got to work their way up and overcome every obstacle thrown at them.
Cash has got a past — a whole first family including an 18-year-old son Jett (Darren Mann) — a reminder of his past life that wasn’t all the glitz and glam. Cash’s past is dark and abusive, but even despite that, Jett aspires to follow in his famous father’s footsteps and pursue MMA fighting as well. Jett is a sensitive, responsible young man — nothing like his father — whose family life is in stark contrast to the time he spends on the road with his father. Jett’s mother struggles to make ends met — with no help from his father — and Jett has to juggle school, training, and looking after his younger brother Quinn (Colin McKenna), who has Williams-Beuren Syndrome. This is a lot on a young man’s shoulders who is also having to choose between his two separate lives.
Although Cash is training Jett, the father-son relationship is fraught and contentious, often butting heads. The formerly estranged Cash is only recently come back into his sons’ lives after an abusive past that Jett is only now starting to fully remember in a serious of blackouts and traumatic flashbacks. Jett is overwhelmed and feels like a failure that will never live up to his dad’s expectations because he’s not as heartless as him — something Cash sees as a sign of weakness — it’s heartbreaking.
The fact that Cash is punishing his former wife and kids for the consequences of his mistakes doesn’t help — Cash refuses to have any sort of meaningful relationship with his special needs son, which infuriates Jett. As Jett’s training intensifies and he starts making waves in the MMA world, the violence begins to bleed outside of the ring as the pressure mounts and his world starts to fall apart. Then he is presented with a life-changing opportunity that will make both men risk everything — putting Jett’s life on the line and jeopardizing Cash’s reputation, empire, and what he has left of a family.
McKenna’s story is filled with drama and emotion and characters that really make you feel something — one way or another. Coupled with Sarkisov’s direction and Paul Ozgur’s cinematography, Embattled is action-filled and visceral with lots of heart. The film starts bold and really gives insight into the personalities of Cash and Jett and their contentious relationship. Stephen Dorff so embodies the polarizing Cash that he really makes you just want to sock him yourself (his parental irresponsibility is maddening). His character doesn’t seem to have any redeeming qualities (except for the fact that he is a shrewd businessman), but the despicableness of Cash is what really intensifies Darren Mann’s nuanced and raw Jett, who so desperately wants his father’s approval.
Both actors deliver strong performances and really seem to feed off of each other. Even Karrueche Tran holds her own opposite the more seasoned Dorff. But the real scene-stealer is newcomer Colin McKenna who commands attention anytime he’s on screen. The two brothers’ scenes are so tender and sincere, and the chemistry between the two comes easy. I also appreciate Donald Faison’s Mr. Stewart and his role in the story but felt as though the disabled veteran was a little overkill and just used to show people that fighters who say they’re “going to battle” is not exactly the same as literally going to battle.
What really makes Embattled a winner is the staging and visualization of the intense fight scenes. The way the fights were shot — using quick cuts to black, silence with only the breathing and grunting of the fighters audible, the close-ups and the slow-motion sequences really bring you to the edge of your seat — it feels like you’re sitting ringside. The adrenaline and intensity of fighting for life is palpable. The way Jett’s childhood trauma is exposed to the audience is also done well — it slowly builds through short flashback glimpses whenever Jett is confronted with traumatic, triggering situations in the present.
In the end, Embattled is a story of the lure and corruption of the all-mighty dollar, but it’s also about coming into your own and breaking the cycle to become a real man. The film delivers its message in a way that allows it to hold its own in the ring of other fighter stories that have come before it.