Embattled (USA, 2020)

A father and son prepare to go for blows in the emotional mixed martial arts drama that goes nearly on the level of Warrior.

For the past two decades, Alabama-born and bred Cash Boykins has dominated the mixed martial arts world. He’s faced loads of adversity, especially coming from an abusive childhood. However, things have changed when an incident forced him to leave his family, made up of elder son Jett, middle son Quinn, and wife Susan. Quinn was born with Williams Syndrome and Jett has always had to take care of him since Cash left. Now remarried to Jade and with a young son, Kingston, Cash has recently reunited with Jett, who has become a judo prodigy.

Jett, a high school senior, has the ambition of becoming a MMA fighter like his father. When Jett has the opportunity to get his first fight now that he’s 18, he wins by a split decision. Meanwhile, Cash is luring the heads of his promotion to make him a new deal as he threatens to unionize MMA fighters. Everything goes down at a house party at Cash’s when Jett remembers the incident that caused his father to leave. Finally confronting his father, Jett has had enough. When a video of the confrontation goes viral, it leads to something unbelievable. A cage match pitting father and son. Who will come out on top and what will be the ramifications?

2010’s Warrior took a radical approach to the world of mixed martial arts. Where MMA was used in some stellar action in Hong Kong courtesy of Donnie Yen, most MMA films in the United States were more mindless action that only capitalized on the trend. Then came Warrior, a meshing of MMA action and emotional drama pitting two estranged brothers against each other in the cage. The film was so good that Bollywood did a remake a few years later in Brothers. A decade later, we have this indie MMA drama that brings the emotional value and changes the family dynamic from brothers to a father and son.

It seems like lately, Stephen Dorff has had a kick playing characters who are well, pretty arrogant and mean-spirited to say the least. From his main villain turn in Blade to the arrogant psychotic sheriff in Leatherface, Dorff has really gone a long way since his debut as an innocent teen who opened The Gate. In this film, Dorff plays Cash, an MMA champion who knows he’s a champion and thrives on it. Possibly because of his background, he has let fame go to his head and leaves his first wife and re-marries and has another child as a result.

Now, this is where it gets very well done. His second wife, the younger Jade, played by Karrueche Tran, actually has a heart for his first family. In cases like these, one would expect the second wife to be a trophy wife or a pompous b***h. However, writer David McKenna went the smart route and made Jade a well-played out character who becomes pivotal as the film progresses. Someone who doesn’t care about the money, but has the emotional spirit of someone who cares for her stepsons, despite Cash’s reluctance and arrogance. And Tran brings that spirit to life very well.

Darren Mann excels as Jett, Cash’s oldest son and protagonist of the film. A judo prodigy, Jett balances school and training while taking care of his younger brother, played by Colin McKenna. One can tell that Jett’s relationship with Cash is pretty much on and off. He respects his father as a champion, but not the way he is out of the cage. Cash doesn’t even acknowledge Quinn and always shows ill-will towards ex-wife Susan, played by The Twilight Saga’s Elizabeth Reaser. In a nicely done subplot that boosts the usually put down Susan, we see her possibly getting romantically involved with Quinn’s wheelchair-bound teacher, played with some comic relief by Donald Faison.

The fight scenes are done by Fernando Chien, who also choreographed Michael Jai White’s awesome film Blood and Bone. The MMA fights are well done for an American film, despite a few technical flaws in the form of extreme closeups. There are some nice long shots and even a few overhead shots on the vein of a Never Back Down installment. The MMA fights are sporadic, but the final fight, pitting Cash and Jett, is both well-executed, emotional, and keeps you at the edge of your seat until the final moments, which are shocking. Even the epilogue is quite emotional and somewhat ambiguous.

Embattled belongs in a double feature with Warrior as a film that blends the family dynamic with mixed martial arts. Stephen Dorff shines as the cocky champ while Darren Mann breaks out as his son who’s had enough.

WFG RATING: A

IFC Films presents a Wild League Productions film in association with La Costa Productions and Blitz Films. Director: Nick Sarkisov. Producers: Eryl Cochran, Scott Lastaiti, and Sergey Sarkisov. Writer: David McKenna; based on a story by Frank Ragen. Cinematography: Paul Özgur. Editing: Mark Sanger.

Cast: Stephen Dorff, Darren Mann, Colin McKenna, Karreuche Tran, Ava Capri, Donald Faison, Said Taghmaoui, Elizabeth Reaser.

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