Review by Sean Boelman
The mixed martial arts drama Embattled starts with an out-of-touch middle-aged fighter talking about the size of his genitals, and that is on the lower end of the shock factor for the dialogue. And even though film’s attempts to dissect masculinity through aggressive portrayals of machismo have mixed results, its emotional beats are consistently powerful and harrowing.
The movie follows a young aspiring fighter who wants to follow in his successful father’s footsteps, but struggles to avoid mirroring his actions outside of the ring, where his abusive tendencies create a toxic environment for everyone around him. At times, the film does fall back on underdog tropes, but there are plenty of moments that will catch viewers off-guard, and the third act is entirely unexpected.
There are two sides to this movie, and the balance that David McKenna strikes between the two isn’t always satisfying. There are lots of moments in which the (purposefully and exaggeratedly) politically incorrect character spews homophobic or misogynistic rhetoric, but the theme of old versus new school isn’t developed enough for this to feel natural.
On the other hand, this is one of the most empathetic and honest depictions of surviving abuse to be committed to the screen. Those who have trauma like this tend to try to rewrite their memory to allow them to try to continue to live a healthy life. This film shows the protagonist not only rewriting his memory, but being forced to confront the past in a way that is absolutely heartbreaking.
At just under two hours, the movie definitely runs a bit longer than it should. The third act is very concise, with a fighting sequence that would stack up against any major studio sports film, but the first two-thirds struggle to settle into that groove. At times, the movie’s melodramatic leanings take over, and at others, it seems like director Nick Sarkisov is trying to do something a bit more expressionistic with the material.
Individual aspects of Sarkisov’s style work really well, but they don’t necessarily blend together well. The groundedness of the abuse storyline doesn’t match the visual symbolism that is used at times. That said, Sarkisov does an excellent job of filming the fight scenes in a way that is exciting and intense.
Stephen Dorff’s performance is big and over-the-top, but it fits and makes the movie all the more uncomfortable. That said, the true standout is Darren Mann, who plays the protagonist. Mann is able to find the right balance between copying some of Dorff’s mannerisms and creating his own to make the role feel distinct.
Embattled is going to be off-putting to some because of its unflinching and unfiltered nature, but beneath those problematic layers is a gut-wrenching story. Under the guise of an average sports film, this is actually so much more.
Embattled hits theaters and VOD on November 20.