Movie review: It’s father vs. son and fists vs. feet in the ferocious ‘Embattled’

Ed Symkus
More Content Now
Cash (Stephen Dorff) tries to toughen up his son Jett (Darren Mann).

Cash Boykins beats people up for a living. Though sometimes the tables are turned and he’s the one being beaten up. He plies his trade in places like the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, in front of screaming crowds. Cash is a mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter, adept at using his fists and his feet as weapons, in order to pummel his opponent into submission or unconsciousness. If “Embattled” was a true story, he would be a competitor in the Ultimate Fighting Challenge (UFC). In the film’s fictional world, he’s a multi-time champion in the World Fighting Association (WFA), where he’s proven over and over that he’s as talented in the sport as he is vicious.

The film opens with “A Big Match,” in which Alabama boy Cash goes up against Russian adversary Timothy the Terrible (Cash wins and takes home yet another big payday). But MMA fans need to know right up front that this isn’t really a fight film. It’s much more about a father-son relationship as well as about finding oneself (that goes for both father and son).

The father is Cash (Stephen Dorff), a hard-drinking tough guy who is long divorced, has no good words for his ex - Susan (Elizabeth Reaser) - nor she for him, is now remarried, to Jade (Karrueche Tran), and has three sons - young Kingston (Jakari Fraser) with Jade, and wannabe fighter Jett (Darren Mann) and his special needs younger brother Quinn (Colin McKenna) with Susan.

It’s the Cash-Jett relationship that the film mostly sticks with, and it’s - here comes an understatement - a problematic one. Bottom line is that Cash, a man who has likely never had a solid connection with another person, is a lousy dad. He might like the idea that Jett, a high school senior, wants to follow in his professional footsteps, but when he insists on sparring with him at training sessions, he makes sure to include some bad-mouthing. Can a bit of accompanying physical violence be far behind? You know, just to help toughen up the kid.

A lot of the spotlight here is directly on Jett. He’s not a very good student in the classroom, no matter how hard he tries. He agrees to take part in sparring matches, set up by Cash, with opponents who easily overpower him, and gets all banged up. Living with Susan and physically- and emotionally-challenged Quinn, he’s the glue that holds that situation together, but he’s starting to lose his patience.

Some back story reveals how the Cash-Susan marriage came to a nasty end a decade ago, and the current story shows that, at least out of the bedroom, home life between Cash and Jade isn’t exactly bliss. Cash is always angry and full of himself, though, in Dorff’s best-acted scene in the film, he does show some concern for his fellow fighters, upon realizing that their salaries and benefits aren’t what he believes they should be. You wonder if he’s going to start beating up management over it. This guy is certainly no role model for anyone. There’s at least one character that calls him a psychopath.

Then it’s back to Jett, and some soul-searching about whether he really wants to be a fighter. But soon, it’s almost as if screenwriter David McKenna (“American History X,” “Blow”) had no choice but to go down a road everyone will be expecting. Events lead up to Chance and Jett unable to be any more at odds against each other, and another “Big Match,” that will draw live crowds as well as Pay-Per-View subscribers, is going to be one for the books: father against son, Cash against Jett.

It’s a fierce, ferocious contest, shot up close with a handheld camera, brimming with aggressive kicks and punches (Cash has better hands; Jett has better feet). Yet with such an intense climax, the film has a bittersweet, almost dreamy ending, and a couple of story turns that everyone will not be expecting.

“Embattled” opens in selected theaters and on VOD on Nov. 20.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

“Embattled”

Written by David McKenna; directed by Nick Sarkisov

With Stephen Dorff, Darren Mann, Elizabeth Reaser, Karrueche Tran

Rated R