Embattled review – oddly compelling and nuanced cage fighting family drama
Part classic montage-showdown sports movie, part southern gothic Oedipal family drama, this decidedly peculiar but oddly compelling film is the proverbial curate’s egg. The plot revolves around the fraught relationship between a mixed martial arts cage fighting champion named Cash Boykins (Stephen Dorff, a sinewy mass here of cut muscle, tattoos and barely controlled rage) and his semi-estranged 18-year-old son Jett (newcomer Darren Mann, more than holding his own). In possession of a much finer soul than his old man, high-school senior Jett lives in a modest suburban house with his waitress mother Susan (Elizabeth Reaser) who divorced Cash a while back, and younger brother Quinn (Colin McKenna, delightful), a sweet, cheeky kid who happens to have Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects physical and mental development.
Jett has a weird, semi-professional relationship with Cash, having been groomed to be the next MMA in the family by the domineering patriarch, but there’s deep reservoir of hurt between them due to the fact that Cash used to beat Susan and treated Quinn, whose disability he couldn’t accept, with appalling cruelty. Outwardly, Cash revels in obnoxious, macho swagger, indicated in the very first scene wherein he discusses his penis size at length. Plus, a good white son of Alabama, he loves to spout sexist, racist hate speech even though he’s currently married to Jade (Karrueche Tran), a biracial woman with whom he’s had another son. But screenwriter David McKenna and director Nick Sarkisov take pains to indicate Cash’s own past as an abused child. Still, that doesn’t stop him from pushing Jett to take part in an unlikely-to-happen-in-the real-world fight with him, for a pay-per-view audience, that’s filmed with brio but at numbing length in the last quarter of the film’s running time.
Personally, I felt less engaged here by the fisticuffs than by the surprisingly nuanced and insightful portrait – viewed through Jett’s and Susan’s eyes – of what it’s like to have a disabled member of the family, particularly for a sibling. It’s here that Mann really comes into his own and displays an acting range more impressive than his stunt work in the fight scenes. Also, Donald Faison is utterly charming as a paraplegic veteran turned special needs teacher who represents a possible suitor for Susan.
• Embattled is released on 5 July on digital platforms.