Travis Leamons // Features Editor
Rated R, 117 minutes.
Director: Nick Sarkisov
Cast: Stephen Dorff, Darren Mann, Elizabeth Reaser, Ava Capri, Karrueche Tran, and Donald Faison
The year I graduated high school was the same year Blink-182 had the hit song “What’s My Again Again?” It bears no relation to the film EMBATTLED (unless discussing actor Stephen Dorff and me showing my age).
If a traditional movie has three acts, Dorff is transitioning into the veteran thespian territory. Never a megastar, he was part of my childhood when he accidentally brought demons to earth from the hole in his backyard (in 1987’s THE GATE). Looking like a dead ringer for a young Jack Nicholson growing older, he would play Jack’s son in BLOOD & WINE. And while he has worked with filmmakers John Waters (CECIL B. DEMENTED) and Sofia Coppola (SOMEWHERE), Dorff will always be associated with one movie BLADE – where he squared off against Wesley Snipes as vampire Deacon Frost.
That was more than 20 years ago. Working in mostly B-level movies (or playing B-level characters) since then, his visibility got a boost appearing on the third season of HBO’s TRUE DETECTIVE and starring in FOX’s canceled police procedural DEPUTY. Those were more or less warm-up fights to the main-event performance he gives as seasoned MMA fighter “Liquid” Cash Boykins in EMBATTLED.
From its opening off-kilter shot as he makes his way from the caged enclosure of a staff elevator to the caged enclosure of the awaiting octagon ring, Dorff is on his game, showboating and performing for the thousands in attendance and upping his social media profile by mouthing “I’m going to kill me a Commie!” Cash is a horrible human being, but his character is not borne out of cliché but rather spite. A malicious upbringing has made him hard and angry.
Had Cash been the central focus as an aging MMA fighter, the story could have progressed like a rehash of Darren Arronofsky’s THE WRESTLER; a fading star struggling in life outside the ring. The story isn’t his struggle but his son, Jett (Darren Mann). A young fighter with a few professional bouts under his belt, Jett is the man of the house. Juggling high school, fight training, and helping his mother, Susan (Elizabeth Reaser), in taking care of his special needs brother, Quinn (Colin McKenna), Jett is overwhelmed. As his estranged father makes millions on the fight circuit, Jett’s family is near destitute; his mother works as both a physical therapist and part-time waitress. Cash’s world revolves around his new family with his second wife, Jade (Karrueche Tran), who birthed him a son.
Cage fighting the conduit for Jett and Cash to connect. Father-son bonding in between sparring sessions.
EMBATTLED is not a sports drama per se. Yes, it involves the world of MMA, but the film uses the sport to explore how life can turn cyclical even in an enclosed space with eight sides. Cash directs his own rough upbringing in how he rears Jett and treats those around him. Jett is empathetic with sore spots. Bruises and a cut lip mask his true measure of masculinity. Cash’s masculinity directly correlates with how he acts when the cage door shuts, and it’s time to fight. He’s wild and brazenly unapologetic for what he does or says. Stephen Dorff’s Cash is pretty much a Conor McGregor doppelganger.
Cash may evoke the life of luxury with a smoking hot wife, four mansions, and a private jet, but he’s an emotional void. Jett is tame by comparison, rationalizing Cash’s actions as untroubled. But you pick at something long enough, it starts to peel. This is who Jett becomes.
When a repressed memory is provoked, it leads to a challenge that neither Cash nor Jett could predict, nor one they could overlook: A family feud to be settled in the cage.
OK, so EMBATTLED has a bit of WARRIOR’s mentality about it. Writer David McKenna (AMERICAN HISTORY X) does a great job in giving balance in showing Cash’s hardness and Jett’s hardships. The ties that bind us can be as restrictive as a submission hold sometimes. Cash may be a monster, but he’s also stoking another fire when it comes to threatening the fight promotors with unionizing. He’s angling for a bigger slice of the profits. Jett’s just chasing his dream to be a fighter, in part to relieve his mother so she can put her life in order.
Truthfully, next to flirting with sporting clichés, the MMA fights, though necessary, are the story’s weakest scenes. Unless, rather, we are to look at them metaphorically as a form of internal warfare and introspection — caged emotions finally exploding.
A few quibbles with the story and underdeveloped subplots aside, it’s hard not to be impressed by the two lead performances. Both bring a level of intensity I wasn’t expecting. Stephen Dorff is supreme. The guy’s money as Cash; just accept it. His presence is commanding, but Mann doesn’t have the autopilot engaged as Jett. Their chemistry is great, and Mann’s scenes with Colin McKenna are the spirit of the story.
EMBATTLED has its faults, make no mistake. Still, do seek it out for Dorff’s interpretation of a cocky fighter, a miserable human, and a worse father. A thespian trifecta and hopefully the start of an acting career renaissance.
EMBATTLED is now playing in select theaters and available on VOD.