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Hollywood's MMA Subgenre: A Comprehensive Review of Ultimate Fighting at the Movies

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MMA has managed to claw its way into movie pop culture, but only in small doses. Allow me to be your tour guide through a brief history of an unfortunate fad.

Unfortunately no MMA film will ever have the words "A Spike Lee joint" attached
Unfortunately no MMA film will ever have the words "A Spike Lee joint" attached
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Pop culture has been best described as a "contradictory mixture of the authentic and the manufactured", to quote the scholar Stuart Hall. Whether in film, music, or literature, there is as much imitation as there is inspiration. It's taken awhile for MMA to slither its way into the pop culture consciousness, but it's there in small doses.

Initially I wanted to do something a little more "academic" with respect to "MMA culture" until I realized that it's well above my paygrade. In addition, I think MMA movies are fairly telling.

Below is basically a review of all the significant MMA themed movies I could get my hands on; or rather, the ones I felt were most popular and/or worth reviewing. I won't be doing a review of all movies starring MMA fighters because that's just not as interesting.

MMA themed movies speak to the culture, for better or for worse. So consider this a helpful (survival) guide for the MMA completest. And be wary of the the Redbelt Effect; a phenomenon which states that the less MMA cameos that exist, the higher the quality of MMA film.

SUPREME CHAMPION

Plot details, such as they are, por favor?

Stephan Bonnar is a retired fighter and war hero. Then one day his ex-girlfriend comes back with the proverbial dark past. She owes money to a bad guy with a bad guy mansion, who forces Bonnar to fight for him as payback for his ex-girlfriend's indiscretions as he "imprisons" him in his mansion.

But is it good?

Yes and no.

The "good" thing about this film is that it isn't Sharknado; bad films that are like the dude at the party who can only get attention and frat admiration if he drinks whiskey with a caulking gun. For one, Bonnar isn't actually an awful actor. Well, I take that back. He is. But he's saddled with monkeys using fart gas to typewrite level scriptwriting. To Bonnar's credit, he has that trademark bewildered wit we know him for, so he's kind of fun to watch.

In addition, the story actually has an original twist; the evil middle aged bad guy suffers from a neuroblastoma (nevermind that this is a cancer that affects children). And the last act involves a Most Dangerous Game backdrop. Because this isn't a Richard Connell adaptation starring Ice-T and Gary Busey, it's not half as good as it sounds, but things could have been worse. A lot worse.

Misogyny?

A little of both. Right away we're treated to lots of gratuitous plastic breasts shots, except this is an MMA movie, so even the silicone has undergone testosterone replacement therapy. However, there's one scene in which Bonnar is seduced by a naked lass waiting for him after getting out of the shower in a mansion he's supposed to be imprisoned in. Despite her seduction, he successfully resists, offering her a happy medium; he will sleep with her, but only literally. The two don't have sex. This confusion makes the film seem less offensive than it could have been otherwise.

How much does the fighting look like real MMA?

Not much. For whatever reason, the fights are choreographed with a low quality vibration effect that was popular in the 80's. And slow. The action is Cynthia Rothrock level. So is the final act shootout, which looks like it was put together by 5th graders making a war film sponsored by Fisher Price.

How present are the Limp Bizkit cover bands?

Thankfully it's limited to the gratuitous strip club scenes.

Dialogue Delinquency?

Bad guy - "That girl's coming with us!"
Bonnar - "I'll bring her back in the morning dickface"

Bonnar - "I'm here to see Mr. Gallows"
Asian bad guy - "You'll see only me"
Bonnar - "Thanks but not really in the mood for Chinese food right now"

Russian Lollipop girl - "I'm Bambi! Know what I really like to do???"
Bonnar - "Don't tell me...splitting the atom?"

CIRCLE OF PAIN

Plot details, such as they are, por favor?

Dalton Hunt is a grumpy, grunting, brooding reluctant hero who was once a big MMA star, but is now just a sulking bad actor who ends up getting dragged back into the octagon by Bai Ling playing Bjorn Rebney. Lots of STEMM ensues.

But is it good?

If you read that last sentence, then you've got your answer. Heath Herring is the bad guy, who for whatever reason, growls all the time with his mouth wide open like he's trying to eat a ceiling fan.

Most people know this film for its awfully acted and choreographed fight between Frank Mir and Heath Herring. And yes, that scene is as random and out of context as it is in context. Heath Herring just finished working out, and Mir (playing a character who didn't exist in the film previously, and won't after) walks up to him and challenges him to a fight in the parking lot like some bloodthirsty Cobra Kai student turned career hobo.

The film's biggest problem is the presence of actor Tony Schiena, who manages to be worse than the MMA fighters turned actors. He grunts every line like Christian Bale in Batman voice, and you quickly realize why his wife left him. The guy who trains Dalton is pretty fun though. His idea of "wax on wax off" is to get knocked out by Kimbo Slice at a bar, forcing Dalton to defend his now unconscious trainer.

Misogyny?

Bai Ling plays a promiscuous promoter. For whatever reason all of Heath Herring's sex scenes (and boy are there a lot of them) are done with his male sidekick/barnacle also having sex. Pretty much all the women are played as harlots. Even the nice, wholesome ex-wife next door has to endure an aggressive doggy style scene. Nothing really offensive. Just nothing progressive either.

How much does the fighting look like real MMA?

The first fight kind of plays out like a real Heath Herring fight; boring and nondescript, bouts of top control inertia included. Then the choreography gets worse, and we get more of the vibration effect nonsense.

How present are the Limp Bizkit cover bands?

Very. This film is easily the biggest offender. There's an annoying simplistic riff for every cup of coffee, every punch, and every one of Kimbo's gold teeth.

Dialogue Delinquency

Heath Herring - "Kickoff time!"

REDBELT

Plot details, such as they are, por favor?

The awesome Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a jiu jitsu instructor whose unintentional exploits in a bar while saving a drunken Tim Allen having a Detective Martin Hart moment ends up the victim of a promoter's scheming which forces Eijiofor into a competition he doesn't want to be a part of.

But is it good?

It's an interesting failure. I don't personally know many movie fans, but the internet allows me to eavesdrop on their conversations, and RedBelt is strangely appreciated. Which is odd, because it's equal parts stupid, bizarre, and sincere, but mostly just stupid. Like a lot of Mamet films, there's a lot of deception, but all of the scheming and conning doesn't make a lick of sense.

For example, Eijofor and his wife are both swindled by Tim Allen's wife over some fabrics. Eijofor's wife then engages in the natural reaction of betraying Eijofor by siding with the conning wife during the big tournament because well, reasons. The film is worth checking out if you're a Mamet fan even though it's missing some of his trademark white collar tough guy speak. It also has the worst "you did this!" death blaming scene I've ever seen.

Unfortunately it relies once again on the reluctant hero trope. Unlike the other MMA films, Mamet's reluctant hero actually articulates his reluctance with Buddhist connotations or something. Or is it samurai? The movie is heavy on symbolism, but light on meaning.

Misogyny?

None.

How much does the fighting look like real MMA?

There's less actual MMA than here is straight jiu jitsu. The grappling sequences are pretty good, standing arm triangles notwithstanding. Nothing extraordinary though.

How present are the Limp Bizkit cover bands?

None.

Dialogue Delinquency

Marty Brown: The belt's a fucking national treasure. It's worth a quarter of a mil.
Bruno Silva: He's going to give it to Ricardo if he loses?
Marty Brown: It's publicity. It's publicity. It's something to tell the papers. It's a story. "I am a Samurai, should this gaijin defeat me, I shall surrender my fucking belt".

NEVER BACK DOWN

Plot details, such as they are, por favor?

Finally something different! Instead of the Man with the Past stereotype so may MMA movies rely on, we get the freshly forged High School Kid with a Past. After getting kicked out of his previous high school for starting a football field brawl, Jake Tyler comes to a high school that has enrolled Jimmy Darling and Johnny Depp's wife. Plus this massive jerk who eventually forces Jake Tyler to fight him in an underground MMA tournament because he was convinced that Jake's YouTube clip of suckering a football player on the field probably means he has skills.

But is it good?

No. Obviously.

It's the Karate Kid where Ralph Macchio crane kicks the sinuses out of William Zabka meets the part of Fight Club where Brad Pitt and Ed Norton start a fight club. In other words, don't except a heartwarming story of social acceptance, or a unique exploration of cynicism. Instead enjoy a heartwarming story about a bunch of bored socially accepted high school kids who can't type 'cynicism' without spellcheck beating the shit out of each other.

Djimon Hounsou classes the place up as best he can. But his class is drowned out by the odor of nu-metal and rehashed plot devices. If there's one thing I'll give it, it's that the movie never pretends to be about anything else. It glorifies the violence, and does so without apology.

Misogyny?

Standard issue misogyny. There's a scene where two girls making out in a tub in front of 30 of their high school friends get pissed when Jimmy Darling decides to tape it. In its "defense", OC-Zabka (the villain) has mini fight clubs set up that are separated by race, gender, and a group involving a 'battle of the exes'. The girl in this fight scene displays some Fedor level ground and pound. I did use the word 'defense' loosely.

How much does the fighting look like real MMA?

Never Back Down actually has some solid fight scenes. In fact, it's easily one of the better choreographed films of the bunch. There's even a helicopter sweep!

How present are the Limp Bizkit cover bands?

Very present. There's a little more variety in this one though. For example, the final tournament has Toby Mac's "The Slam" playing over it; a song that's all about the greatness of God. I'm not sure the filmmakers were aware of this while Kim Jong Zabka hacks underage kids down with his fists.

Dialogue Delinquency

"It's gotta end with you looking like a bitch"

NEVER SURRENDER

Plot details, such as they are, por favor?

Hector Echavarria unconvincingly plays a mixed martial artist who gets lured into some underground tournament on an island owned by a villain who thinks he's in a Castlevania video game.

But is it good?

Jake Rossen, formerly of Sherdog, devoted an entire blog post to Hector Echavarria and his films. He's directed quite a bit more I guess, but there's no way I could stomach another film of his. Instead of reviewing it in this section, let's move on to the next one, since it's actually part of the plot.

Misogyny?

It's clear from the outset that Echavarria is like some sort of Argentinian Steven Seagal. The film opens to a scene at a club where all the women want to sleep with him. But not before a real howler when he tells Quinton Jackson that "the last guy who thought I was gay...I kick his ass!".

That's a really interesting line. It makes Hector sound like some thuggish Professor X Scalia making sure homosexuality is defeated, one debased thought at a time.

Anyway, most MMA movies have more of a fratboy attitude to sexuality (not to exalt them). But the misogyny is actually palpable in this one, as Hector's character is given "consorts" each time he wins; these "consorts" are women forced to sleep with him, but who he gladly takes advantage of.

For some reason, it's not until the third girl he sleeps with (this while in the middle of a 'serious relationship' with one of the female protagonists) that he begins to wonder whether or not something's amiss about the tournament. This is his "arc" I guess.

A lot of MMA fighters show up. Most movies are aware that certain parts/characters exist because it's a manner of shoehorning in a cameo. This movie doesn't even feign that kind of transparency. GSP is there just to be there. Literally. He shows up at Hector's mansion and beats up a bunch of henchmen guarding the place, except Hector isn't in any trouble. The two meet, chatter a bit, and then split.

How much does the fighting look like real MMA?

Stupid vibration effects, and cheesy slow motion. The less said about the Anderson Silva fight, the better. Watch at your own peril. Take my advice and listen to some Colour Haze instead. If you're into that sort of thing...

How present are the Limp Bizkit cover bands?

I'd actually rather listen to Limp Bizkit than the dialogue in this movie.

Dialogue Delinquency

The film never tries to be clever, which is fine, since it cuts down on the running time.

LOCKED DOWN

Plot details, such as they are, por favor?

The incredibly terrible actor from Circle of Pain (also directed by the awful Daniel Zirilli) plays a grunting, brooding cop who gets 'locked up' after a cocaine deal involving Forrest Griffin goes bad. To keep himself vertical, and out of Vinnie Jones' evil grasp, he has to enter an underground prison tournament involving Rashad Evans who loves to talk about "fresh fish".

But is it good?

Circle of Pain established director Daniel Zirilli as someone to avoid. But if you had to pick one Daniel Zirilli film, let it be this one. At least here there's something resembling a plot, no matter how rehashed.

Thankfully it's not about underground fighting. This time the fighting is associated with underground betting, and the underground betting keeps the prison brass in Vinnie Jones' pocket since they're all evil scumbags who need his money for evil habits.

Misogyny?

The film starts out with a stripper dancing for drug dealers trying to finish a deal in an abandoned warehouse. The Warden is a pedophile, and one of the main guards is a womanizing jerk.

I realize the film is condemning these characters as evil, but explorations of exploitation all too often become illustrations of exploitation, and pretty soon you sense that the director just wants any excuse he can find to leer at naked women (Zirilli doesn't exactly help his cause when the exploitation is accompanied by sub Papa Roach level rock).

How much does the fighting look like real MMA?

Circle of Pain didn't have any good fight scenes. Neither does this one.

How present are the Limp Bizkit cover bands?

Pretty much every other scene involves the tympanic torture of STEMM. Every now and then we get music that isn't Linkin Park. For example, imposing black characters are always accompanied by a rap song. So there's that.

Dialogue Delinquency

None. Kind of shocking given the characters in this film.

WARRIOR

Plot details, such as they are, por favor?

Two estranged brothers with personal drama already filling their lives find their way competing in the same tournament.

But is it good?

Warrior is easily the most high profile MMA themed movie. Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, Frank Grillo, and whatever bearded overfed animal that swallowed Nick Nolte are all established actors.

A lot of MMA critics and fans didn't like this movie much. Neither do I, but there's a competency to the acting, and directing that make it feel fresh even though it's as contrived as any other MMA movie.

Misogyny?

Hector Echavarria and Daniel Zirilli aren't involved, so no.

How much does the fighting look like real MMA?

Pretty close. The choreography is excellent. You won't be convinced that Joel Edgerton can kimura Anthony Johnson, but it doesn't mean the fighting itself isn't elegant. Special props to an unrecognizable Kurt Angle playing Koba (clearly fashioned after Fedor).

How present are the Limp Bizkit cover bands?

Nope.

Dialogue Delinquency

None.

The Philly Kid

Plot details, such as they are, por favor?

A former NCAA champ is paroled after 10 years, and then gets dragged into an underground tournament because his best friend owes some bad people money.

But is it good?

Yes, actually!

But what a pleasant surprise. It's not a great film by any stretch. Dillon, the so called 'Philly Kid' (so named because he was born and raised in Baton Rouge?), ends up in jail because his friend accidentally shoots a cop through a butterfly effect like web of contrivances. But right away, our protagonist is shown reading lots of Melville, and his friend makes a Wire reference when referring to Michael Jai White's character. References alone do not a plot or movie make, but it was such a turnabout in contrast to clubbing, fake metal, and forced MMA cameos that it was kind of hard to not embrace.

The story itself sort of lingers about. Dillon is the prototypical Man with a Past, but he's not as whiny as every other brooding protagonist MMA movies feel like they have to have. In addition, the bad guys are people you actually kind of want to see get their comeuppance. Especially the over the top dirty cop who gets his kicks off shooting bullets through Devon Sawa's cheek.

This was the last film I decided to watch so maybe it's just the feeling of a nice warm shower after the ectoplasmic misery of everything else before it.

Misogyny?

Nope. The love interest, played by Sarah Butler, even has the autonomy to hatch a plan to get Dillon out of his predicament. Who knew women could be proactively heroic instead of either damsels in distress, or damsels out of dress?

How much does the fighting look like real MMA?

Not too much, which is fine. Real fighting can be amazingly boring. Remember Dias vs. Makashvili anyone? A fight I totally warned you guys about? The actors move fluidly, and coherently (especially during the grappling exchanges). The editing is a little sloppy, but there are moments of stillness that keep the fights engaging.

How present are the Limp Bizkit cover bands?

Background noise in seedy places. Where they belong.

Dialogue Delinquency

None.

Final Impressions and a Sobering Word on MMA Culture

MMA movies are a strange bunch. They're steeped in the sport's echo chamber, so every film feels like it needs to re-introduce you to what exactly MMA is. They don't have much to offer except a bunch of Skinemax scenes, bad music, and protagonists who have to be so reluctant to do anything, they can't take a piss without getting an ok from the haunted past ghost.

Does this say anything about MMA culture itself? Maybe. Maybe not.

A lot of people talk and reference MMA's roots in pro wrestling. It's a fascinating exploration that has been intelligently explored (stop reading this nonsense and check out John Nash's Martial Chronicles) in a variety of ways. But I get the impression that the sport is actively disinterested in identity. MMA movies are a lot like sport itself; crude, vulgar, anachronistic in vague and overt ways, and out of touch with actual culture. This is a sport that exists in a snowglobe of ring card girls, and unironic nu-metal. I can think of no greater indictment of MMA's soul than Face the Pain. Sorry MMA, but The Handsome Family you ain't.

Rankings

8. Never Surrender

7. Circle of Pain

6. Locked Down

5. Warrior

4. Redbelt

3. Never Back Down (has the most cinematic choreography besides Warrior, and no I'm not ashamed in putting this ahead of Mamet's brain-dead MMA attempt)

2. The Philly Kid

1. Supreme Champion (it has a stupid charm I consider memorable, and an unconventional structure that makes it feel like the Lloyd Kaufman of the group)