Review Twofer: Embattled/Jiu Jitsu

★★★

What better way is there to close out a weekend after the Colts bested the Packers than by taking in a martial arts VOD double bill? Here’s what I watched and what I thought of ‘em.

Embattled:

I don’t give a rip about mixed martial arts in reality, but for whatever reason I find the sport fascinating within the context of movies and television shows – “Never Back Down” (guilty pleasure though it is), “Warrior” and “Kingdom” (this Audience Network series is now streaming on Netflix and is very much worth a watch) are all most assuredly my jams. MMA often serves as a metaphor to the strife these characters are experiencing interpersonally. These are stories of fathers, sons and brothers. Due to my curiosity with this subject matter, my interest was certainly piqued when I heard about and later saw the trailer for “Embattled,” which is now available on VOD and playing theatrically (it’s currently showing at Goodrich Quality Theaters locations in Brownsburg, Lebanon, Lafayette and West Lafayette, Ind.).

“Embattled” tells the tale of famed MMA fighter Cash Boykins (Stephen Dorff). Cash is as good in the cage as he is bad outside of it. He’s a crappy husband – currently to Jade (Karrueche Tran); formerly to Susan (Elizabeth Reaser) – and a worse father. He’s taken his eldest son Jett (Darren Mann) under his wing – the kid’s part of his entourage as a cornerman and trains at his gym. Cash cares about Jett as much as he’s capable, but his love is of the tough variety. Cash is frequently physically and verbally abusive to Jett, which is a spot better than the way he treats one of his other sons – the developmentally challenged Quinn (Colin McKenna) – whom he refers to as, “The Tard.”

Memories come to the surface that drive a deeper wedge between father and son. Tensions boil over resulting in Jett striking Cash in the face. The attack is caught on a hanger-on’s cell phone and the video goes viral. Despite only being 18 and a high school senior, Jett is now tasked with stepping into the Octagon and going toe-to-toe with his old man. Jett proceeds to get instruction from the only brawler to have bested his Dad in the cage – Claude (Saïd Taghmaoui).

The premise of “Embattled” is somewhat preposterous with Dorff’s Cash being too old to fight and Mann’s Jett being too young. The material sings however due to David McKenna’s strong script. David is the father of the aforementioned Colin and has written movies good (“American History X,” “Blow,” “Bully”), bad (“Body Shots,” the Sly Stallone “Get Carter”) and somewhere in between (2003’s “S.W.AT.”).  “Embattled” hews closer to the positive side of McKenna’s filmography. He gives his actors weighty emotions to play and they deliver.

This is undoubtedly Dorff and Mann’s show. I’m a fan of Dorff’s despite others making fun of him for doing vape ads. I dug him all the way back to Aerosmith’s “Cryin’” music video through his villainous turn in “Blade” all the way to the last season of HBO’s “True Detective,” where he outacted Mahershala Ali … which is no small feat. Dorff’s Cash is almost entirely contemptable, but he’s also highly watchable. I was unfamiliar with Mann going into the movie and was surprised to read he’s 31 years old. He was completely believable as an 18-year-old and brought considerable sensitivity and likability to the part of Jett. I actively rooted for and cared about this kid, which is a testament to McKenna’s writing and Mann’s performance. These dudes are ably supported by Reaser and “Scrubs” star Donald Faison as Quinn’s teacher/Susan’s romantic interest. Taghmaoui is also good in the film, but I could’ve gone for more of him.

“Embattled” is the American feature debut of 34-year-old Georgian filmmaker Nick Sarkisov and he makes quite the impression. The picture places a greater emphasis on emotion as opposed to grappling. The fights are convincing however and often pack one helluva wallop.

4/5

Jiu Jitsu

Dumb is fun until it ain’t. I was so stoked for “Jiu Jitsu” (now available on VOD) after having seen the trailer. It looked like a combination of “Predator” (a movie I love) and “Mortal Kombat” (a video game series I’ve played and dug since I was a kid) – which it is – but the plot is thin and its logic is thinner. Not even the likes of my favorite mega-actor Nicolas Cage, Tony Jaa (one of today’s best big screen martial artists) or Frank Grillo (a bonafide man crush of mine) could keep me engaged.

Jake (stuntman/actor Alain Moussi) is a Jiu Jitsu expert currently suffering from amnesia. He’s being pursued by Brax (Ryan Tarran), a seemingly invincible alien giving off HUGE “Halo” vibes who wants to fight him with humanity’s fate hanging in the balance. Jake is aided by mysterious cave dweller Wylie (Cage), fellow Jiu Jitsu practitioners (Jaa, Grillo, Marrese Crump, JuJu Chan) and soldiers (Eddie Steeples – Crabman from “My Name is Earl,” Rick Yune, Marie Avgeropoulos) in regaining both his memory and strength so he can battle and best Brax. That’s it. No more. No less. It’s far more fight-y fight-y and far less story story – punch, kick, wash, rinse, repeat. I wasn’t expecting Shakespeare, but I was hoping this cheese would be more Gruyere and less government.

The movie starts off promisingly enough with an awesome action sequence that incorporates first-person perspective featuring Moussi and Jaa. The problem is that Jaa’s mastery of martial arts is so much more impressive and entertaining than Moussi’s that it’s off-putting when Jaa is sidelined in favor of Moussi. It’s like taking a bite of a perfectly-cooked medium rare St. Elmo’s filet only to have your waiter snatch your plate away and replace it with Golden Corral sirloin that’s sat under a heat lamp all day. After having seen Moussi here and in “Kickboxer: Vengeance” (which was co-written and produced by “Jiu Jitsu” director Dimitri Logothetis), I’m uncertain he has what it takes to headline a picture. As an actor he’s a really good stuntman, but even then he’s not the physical specimen that Jaa is.

I sorta figured the acting slack would be taken up by Cage, but his performance is less mega and more mail-in. Who does this dude think he is? Bruce Willis? It’s still entertaining to see him sport a Raiden hat and smoke a spliff however.

2/5

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