Haymaker

★★★

If you ever wanted to see a cross between “Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior” and “The Bodyguard” with a dash of Nicolas Winding Refn’s stylistic flourishes thrown in for good measure then “Haymaker” (available on VOD and in select theaters beginning Friday Jan. 29) could very much be your particular bag.

Nick (Nick Sasso) is a retired Muay Thai fighter who’s working as a New York City-based bouncer. One night he jumps to the defense of talented transgender songstress Nomi (Nomi Ruiz) who’s being attacked by an overzealous fan (Olan Montgomery) in her dressing room. Nick knocks the snot outta the stalker, which results in him getting canned as the creep is a friend of the club. Nomi, impressed by Nick’s skills and feeling as if she owes him, hires Nick as her personal bodyguard. Nomi and Nick travel the world from Los Angeles to Greece for her tour where romantic feelings begin to blossom and inspiration strikes for his return to the ring.

This is obviously a passion project for Sasso who not only stars but also serves as writer, producer, lead special effects artist, editor and director. He shows more promise as a filmmaker than he does as an actor. His acting is a bit wooden, but he performs admirably in the fight sequences. Sasso’s performance is elevated by Ruiz’s work. She’s attractive and alluring here – you get why Nick would be drawn to her even if it’s counterintuitive to your own preferences. Ruiz also excels in performing a series of musical numbers. I credit Sasso for not making a big deal out of Ruiz’s sexual identity. It’s addressed but rarely stigmatized – these two simply relate to one another on a human level. Sasso also smartly surrounds himself and Ruiz (both relatively inexperienced actors) with more seasoned performers such as Zoë Bell (the veteran stuntwoman also serves as stunt coordinator and second unit director), D.B. Sweeney, Udo Kier and John Ventimiglia (best known as Artie Bucco from “The Sopranos”) who help sell the material.

There are decisions that Sasso makes (especially as an editor – the introduction of Nick’s final opponent is particularly “WTF”-inducing) that are flummoxing and occasionally read as amateurish. He may have spread himself thin by taking on too many tasks. In spite of this “Haymaker” often comes across as bigger and more assured than its obviously meager budget would generally suggest. The picture has a worldly quality having filmed in the aforementioned New York, Los Angeles and Greece along with a picturesque and personality-lending pit stop in Thailand. Sasso despite stumbling into some pitfalls that plague first-time filmmakers and multi-hyphenates (this could easily be seen as a vanity project) ultimately achieves a great deal with limited means and runtime (a mere 83 minutes). He could be one to watch.

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