“Over the top” is a relative concept in the bludgeoning, unabashedly theatrical sport of mixed martial arts, which makes cartoon hero-villains of stars like Conor McGregor, even as their fighting gets grimily down-and-dirty. So it perhaps goes against the spirit of things to describe “Embattled,” a sports drama animated by a clear McGregor proxy, as a bit overblown. Yet at several points in Georgian director Nick Sarkisov’s roaring, blood-and-guts film, it’s hard not to wish it would take things down a notch: A hokey, old-fashioned father-son meller clothed in a younger man’s bling-encrusted robes, it increasingly sacrifices emotional credibility for the violent, amped-up bravado of MMA itself. By the time it pivots into outright revenge fantasy territory, the script’s earlier attempts at intimate character work are largely undone, though committed performances by Stephen Dorff and Darren Mann remain.
“Embattled” is primarily fashioned as a showcase for Dorff, sporting McGregor-style grooming and an extensive body-scrawl of tattoos — he not only looks the part but has plainly put much labor into looking it. He’s put through the rigors of intricate fight choreography that looks both aptly and acutely painful, though beneath the impressive and exhaustive physicality of the performance, he’s not given an awful lot to play: As Cash Boykins, an Alabama-based MMA welterweight legend with a whole lot of issues under his championship belt, he’s tasked with embodying all the brutish, toxic masculinity one associates with the sport, and not with challenging or complicating any such preconceptions.
Sure enough, his Cash is a vivid monster: he taunts and bullies his peers, skeezily harasses women, spits out all manner of slurs — racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic — with gleeful abandon, and thinks nothing of raising his hand to his wife and kids. Yet the eldest of those kids, 18-year-old Jett (Mann), has decided to fight back in more ways than one. Long estranged after Cash’s acrimonious divorce from Jett’s mother Susan (Elizabeth Reaser), father and son have recently reunited over Jett’s ambition to crack the MMA circuit himself, dubiously nurtured by Cash with a training regimen that borders on physical and psychological torture.
Quite why Jett is so desperate to follow in his father’s bloody footsteps is one of a few chips missing from “American History X” scribe David McKenna’s simplistic screenplay. A sweet, sensitive kid who acts as a rock of support to both his hard-up mom and his special-needs brother Quinn (McKenna’s own son Colin, who, like his character, was born with Williams Syndrome), he’s not at all blind to Cash’s failings, particularly when he sees his stepmother Jade (Karrueche Tran, affecting in a limited role) and young half-brother subjected to the same cruelty he endured earlier in his childhood. Perhaps we’re to believe his fighting instinct is as unthinkingly inherited as Cash’s alcoholism and abusiveness. A one-line reference to his own father being a mean drunk is all we get of his backstory, and the most effort McKenna makes to render him remotely sympathetic.
Though he’s still an academically struggling high school senior, Jett’s fledgling MMA career starts picking up steam, thanks to his father’s string-pulling. Rather than bringing them together, the teen’s early success only damages his already hot-and-cold relationship with Cash: perhaps because it highlights the older man’s impending career downturn, perhaps more simply because it diverts attention from him for a moment or two. The building aggression between them must come to a head: a climactic clash looms, both inevitable and preposterous, as “Embattled” abandons any pretense of gritty realism and dials up the knucklehead wish-fulfillment as hard as it (and Michael Brook’s thumping, crashing synthetic score) can go.
Never mind that this narrative lurch connotes a different film entirely from several more pedestrian domestic subplots — including Jett playing cupid for Susan and Dan (Donald Faison), Quinn’s kindly teacher, or his best friend Keaton (Ava Capri, in a part so barely conceived she might well be his girlfriend too) pursuing her own dream of enrolling at West Point. “Embattled” is content to suspend all such concerns for an extended, suitably visceral cage-fighting climax, the various rhythmic shifts and stylistic tricks of which — sonic distortion, blackouts, sudden lunges into slow-motion — would hit harder if Sarkisov hadn’t already displayed them throughout the film’s preceding, less urgent action.
Still, it’s gripping in the moment, and gives you a clear rooting interest, thanks in no small part to Mann. Standing up to Dorff’s showier braggadocio — which open the film at full volume and stays there — the Canadian star offers a measured, vulnerable turn that at least fills in the character’s blank spaces with humane, all-purpose likability. At no point does “Embattled” (a generic title that notionally refers to both its lead characters, and doesn’t really capture either of them) answer the question of why anybody would want to do this to themselves. Neither, to be fair, does it really ask it: “Fighting isn’t who you are, it’s what you do,” Jett is told at one point. The rest, it seems, he’ll figure out later.
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