In Georgian director Nikolay Sarkisov’s debut feature, the audience watches the deterioration of a father-son relationship via the world of mixed martial arts. The overriding problem is that the paternal figure, Cash Boykins, is so loathsome that the audience struggles to maintain their engagement, even when an opportunity for vengeance against him arises.
Stephen Dorff plays Cash with wholly convincing boorish abandon. He starts the story as a concupiscent homophobe and a series of flashbacks sees him descend to a perennially abusive family man that even attempts to asphyxiate his disabled son to death. The casting and costumes of the American actor may bear an uncanny resemblance to former UFC champion Conor McGregor, but it would be incomprehensible that the sport could gain any popularity if their stars exhibited such reprehensible behaviour. In this film, the world of MMA is so amoral, it barely bats an eyelid to his cruelty.
To give balance to the callousness of Cash, screenwriter David McKenna provides plentiful insight into his eldest son Jett’s (Darren Mann) school and family life with a character whose personality is the antithesis of his father’s. He, unlike Cash, is supportive of his financially beleaguered mother (Elizabeth Reaser) and his developmentally challenged brother Quinn (Colin McKenna, who, like his character, was born with Williams Syndrome). The extent of his support is so caring that he acts as part-time carer to his brother and part-time cupid for his mother, setting her up with Quinn’s school teacher and disabled army veteran, Mr Stewart (Donald Faison).
With these polar differences between father and son comes a major structural issue that further impedes the audience’s engagement. Rather than intertwine both arcs, the film feels split between being a hard-edged sporting drama and a wholesome, feel-good story about the triumph of family love in the face of adversity. Furthermore, it is inexplicable why Jett is seemingly keen to continue his father’s legacy when he is fully aware of his paternal shortcomings. Unfortunately, the script provides no answers. Instead, Embattled throws a narrative curveball in the form of a PPV fight between experienced father and callow son to bring it to its climax.
Despite a thumping, muscular electronic score by Michael Brook and Sakisov’s stylistic editing tricks in this moment, which include sonic distortion and slow-motion, the climax, like the film, fails to emotionally land as successfully as the fighters’ punches.
Embattled is released digitally on demand on 5th July 2021.
Watch the trailer for Embattled here: