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Stephen Dorff’s cage-fighting drama somehow punches above its weight

Opening scenes are important: they announce the direction of the movie, just as an opening paragraph forecasts the direction of a novel.
This one starts with Stephen Dorff, as Cash “The Slayer” Boykins, champion mixed martial arts fighter, walking into a huge arena in Las Vegas to fight some random Russian. The young guy at Cash’s side, part of his team, asks Cash a pointed question about the length of his penis. There follow a few lines of dialogue that would make a wharfie blush, at which point, I thought, hmmmm. More than a century of screenwriting and we’ve come to this?
Stephen Dorff (left) and Michael Wayne Foster play a MMA father and son team in Embattled.
Mind you, some might say MMA fighting is the physical equivalent of those lines. It is to boxing and Asian martial arts what World Series Wrestling is to Greco-Roman, only more dangerous. Wikipedia says MMA has produced at least six fatalities since 2007. Doctors have found the injury rate among fighters is twice that of conventional boxers, mostly to the head. Can the lawsuits be far behind?
In fact, Embattled isn’t as dumb as it looks. It could hardly be. The young guy who asked the question turns out to be Cash’s 18-year-old son Jett (Darren Mann), a reluctant member of his father’s team. Jett wants to graduate high school, go to college, marry his school sweetheart, but his father wants to turn him into the next UFC champion.

Cash gives the family he walked out on no cash. Jett’s little brother, Quinn (Colin McKenna), was born with Williams Syndrome, a genetic disorder. Classy as ever, Cash calls him “Tard”. He calls his ex-wife, Jett’s mother Susan (Elisabeth Reaser), “that bitch” and worse. He really is a piece of work.
It takes a while to realise the film is about the crisis of masculinity in America: that, and the pleasure of seeing someone beat the crap out of someone who deserves it. As the first, it has some interesting things to say; as the second, it delivers all the biff anyone could want, in a Raging Bull finale that’s well put together by the Georgian director, Nick Sarkisoy. David McKenna, who wrote the script (American History X), is well aware of the politics of cage fighting and what it says about modern culture. Still, the biff is the biff.

We might ask how these two ideas can co-exist, but contradiction has always been part of movies. High Noon is a pacifist film that ends in a gunfight — because the ending where Gary Cooper invites the bad guys to get drunk and settle their differences over a game of poker never made it off the typewriter. So Embattled may be smarter than it looks, but it’s still further evidence of the decline of human civilisation.