‘BORN A CHAMPION’: Sean Patrick Flanery’s ode to Brazilian jiu-jitsu

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

Rated R, 112 minutes.
Director: Alex Ranarivelo
Cast: Sean Patrick Flanery, Katrina Bowden, Maurice Compte, and Dennis Quaid

Acting has got to be one of the coolest professions. You can play anyone, be anything. Maybe a teenage explorer with an outback fedora hat with a whip in his hand. Or, perhaps, a blue-collar Irish meatpacker, sporting blue denim jeans, well-worn brown leather lace-up boots, a black turtleneck, and a dark navy pea coat as he moonlights as one of Boston’s avenging saints.  

Sean Patrick Flanery was both. 

He’s been around the Hollywood game for so long that it’s easy to forget he played a young Indiana Jones or that his saintly man opposite actor Norman Reedus. Flanery’s THE BOONDOCK SAINTS was a massive cult hit and highly sought-after Blockbuster rental back in the early aughts. I should know; it took me forever to get that tape.  

Some actors become stars, while others put in the work to make a living. The latter, in some ways, they’re like prize-winning fighters where the purse gets less and less as the years go by. But just when you think they are done for, washed-up, and best to retire, they surprise the hell out of you. 

Sean Patrick Flanery is that guy. 

A journeyman actor whose filmography is littered with projects best left unspoken – he’ll freely admit – his latest may best define who he is as a person. 

BORN A CHAMPION is an MMA sports drama and a passion project for Flanery. Having trained in the martial arts since he was nine years old, and spending more time mastering the art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) than it takes to earn a PhD, Flanery takes a story he wrote more than a decade ago and transposes it to a visual medium. 

Director Alex Ranarivelo, a veteran of the sports drama (with AMERICAN WRESTLER: THE WIZARD and THE RIDE), and who helped Flanery with fleshing out the story, approaches the material from a pseudo-documentary track as if he were making a “30 for 30” special for ESPN. Window boxed video with a tattooed interview subject opens the drama, as we hear an off-camera interviewer asking him questions about how he met Mickey Kelley (Flanery). The interviewee is Rosco (Maurice Compte), who was working as a parking lot attendant when three dudebros started hassling him, calling him “Taco.” Mickey intervenes and disposes of the trio without throwing a punch. 

Mickey specializes in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a self-defense martial art that relies on grappling and submission to disable opponents. He’s so regarded that he fields an offer to teach the defense techniques to the Dubai sheik sons. During the flight, he encounters a beautiful woman, Layla (Katrina Bowden), and then later rescues her from a Greek fur industrialist that’s trying to strongarm her into a prostitution ring. It’s just a matter of time before Mickey gives Layla a ring of a different sort. 

As our narrator, Rosco, takes us through the timeline of events in how the lovebirds became parents and the difficulties that arise in being a provider. It was just a matter of time before BORN A CHAMPION turns its attention to the fight arena. Much like ROCKY was a love story and underdog boxing drama, Flanery and Ranarivelo give us that with MMA while incorporating inspirational bits of wisdom – Mickey telling his son what his Saint Sebastian tattoo represents holds greater weight during the film’s climax – before becoming a redemption tale.  

Such a wide scope in terms of theme, it almost becomes a “Fight Gone Bad,” losing control as a strange plot thread in the last half-hour nearly unravels the narrative. Its inclusion confuses the viewer, as it completely changes one character’s motives in Mickey’s presence. Aside from this hiccup, I still bought into the story. 

Dennis Quaid is the other big name as Mason, a fight promoter trying to legitimize caged combat as a professional sport. This is pre-Dana White and before the Ultimate Fighting Championship. But when Mason’s prized fighter, Marco (professional fighter Edson Barboza), and his undefeated record come under scrutiny – as the result of an MMA tournament held in Dubai with Marco and Mickey meeting in the finals – thanks to internet fighting forums, AOL chats, and video uploads of the contest (remember, this is all pre-Reddit, Facebook, and YouTube), it gives Mickey a second chance at achieving financial stability to ensure his son has the “good stuff” he never had as a kid.   

BORN A CHAMPION is not showy – similar to the artistry and respect David Mamet showed with REDBELT – but it is a showpiece for Sean Patrick Flanery. His presence echoes Mickey Rourke in THE WRESTLER. Maybe it was his weathered countenance and the fact he’s named Mickey. Then, when Mickey supplements his income as a bouncer, I was getting Patrick Swayze ROAD HOUSE vibes. It must’ve been the black t-shirt. As these images swirled around in my head, reality hit: Sean Patrick Flanery is twenty years removed from his days as Connor MacManus in the original BOONDOCK SAINTS. So is Keanu Reeves as Neo in the first MATRIX. But the JOHN WICK series has been a visibility boost in making audiences remember how cool Keanu is.

Flanery should get similar treatment. This passion project shows he has all the right moves in circumventing opponents and our expectations.

 Grade: B-

BORN A CHAMPION is now available on Digital and On Demand. It arrives on disc today.

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