One review I read for this film describes it as the Rocky of mixed martial arts. And, yes, this remarkably dramatic tale does echo some Balboa themes. Yet, this time around, you have a screenplay written and directed by David Mamet. This means that the dialogue, though at times sounding more apt for the stage, is snappier, smarter, and slightly more sinister than anything by Sylvester Stallone.
Mixed martial arts, or MMA, is a full contact sport where men fight each other using a wide variety of techniques. As a sport, it was born in the 19th century when heavyweight-boxing champions started squaring off with Greco-Roman wrestlers. As you watch it depicted in this new film, a boxing-wrestling-hybrid match is probably the most resemblance it has.
In the late 1960s, Bruce Lee was credited with pioneering the idea of combining multiple martial arts. Lee once said, "The best fighter is not a boxer, karate or judo man. The best fighter is someone who can adapt to any style." The main character in this movie, Mike Terry, would seem to be a living example of Bruce Lee's ideal.
In the 1990s, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, started when a California advertising executive met the teacher and owner of a Brazilian jujitsu school. Both decided to hold a tournament to find the best fighter. Their first televised broadcast on pay-per-view featured kickboxers, sumo wrestlers, and jiu-jitsu black belts.
Sen. John McCain, Republican of Arizona and future presidential candidate, called UFC "human cockfighting" and worked to get it shut down. Today, however, UFC has surpassed WWE and professional boxing in popularity, spawning its own reality series on SpikeTV, called The Ultimate Fighter. This past May, CBS even began airing mixed martial arts events, live, during prime-time under a deal called EliteXC Saturday Night Fights, a deal, which brings UFC-like sports to network TV for the first time. The program originated on the cable channel Showtime.
McCain opposed the fights because UFC did not have many rules, and the matches were in effect "no holds barred," making them seem very brutal and violent. This film gives a glimpse behind the scenes of one such UFC-like match, and the corrupt organizers who seek to profit off of it. Nonetheless, this film is not caked in the kind of brutality and violence that you might expect. There are more inner struggles than outer ones, and more quiet moments than loud body slams.
Chiwetal Ejiofor (American Gangster and Children of Men) stars as Mike Terry, a former military soldier, the teacher and owner of a jujitsu academy, a small school on the southside of Los Angeles. At the academy, Mike trains bodyguards and police officers mixed martial arts, so that they can protect themselves better at their jobs.
Mike also trains women who have been victimized or abused physically and sexually. British actress Emily Mortimer plays such a woman, a lawyer named Laura Black whose fear and anxiety gets the ball rolling in Mike's academy that ultimately leads to his toughest challenge. Mike's strong yet quiet, samurai-like code refrains that there is no situation you can't escape, though this doesn't stop writer-director David Mamet (The Spanish Prisoner and Glengarry Glen Ross) from crafting a situation that certainly tries.
It all starts with a series of bad luck events that occur the night before Mike gives his best pupil, a cop named Joe Collins, a black belt. Here, a black belt represents a martial arts student being skilled enough to become a teacher. Many black belts can be given. A redbelt is one that can be held only by one, a supreme grand master in the field. That grand master is one that commands the utmost respect and loyalty.
To Collins, played by Max Martini (Saving Private Ryan and The Unit), Terry is as close to that redbelt as one can get. Collins is loyal to Terry, but a job that Terry sends Collins to do turns out to be one where the employer, Bruno Silva, doesn't pay. Yet, Collins is so loyal to Terry that he doesn't even mention it, but when Terry does find out, Terry goes to Silva to confront him.
Terry thinks that he has some pull with Silva, probably because Terry is married to Silva's sister, Sondra, played emphatically by Alice Braga (I Am Legend and City of God). She, like her brother, is constantly thinking about business and money. Understandably, her Italian fashion company and Terry's business are in financial trouble, but she becomes obsessed with getting it, even if it means sacrificing principles.
Terry, however, is not willing to sacrifice his principles. He is a moral man who lives by a strict code and he won't bend or break it for anybody or for whatever amount of money. Yet, Silva won't yield.
When Terry meets a drunk actor named Chet Frank, played by Tim Allen (Toy Story and Home Improvement), working on a war movie who needs help, Terry thinks that this could be a great opportunity. Frank attempts to pick a fight in a bar, and you wonder why. Is he that much of a jerk? Or, is there something more going on here? Terry jumps in and saves him, and Frank is so impressed with Terry's martial arts that he hires Terry as a co-producer and stunt coordinator on his film.
The plot starts to thicken and a larger conspiracy is revealed involving intellectual property, and MMA matches becoming like fixed or rigged WWE matches, and how some want to capitolize off that.
While this film has no visual style to speak of, and that Mamet-style of dialogue can be annoying initially, the acting performances are singularly, and, as a whole, amazing. IN the end, Mamet does weave together an interesting story. Though it may not be new, it's enough to give his actors, like Ejiofor, enough to shine and sweat.
Four Stars out of Five
Rated R for strong language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 39 mins.