'Embattled': Film Review

Embattled
Courtesy of IFC Films
Dorff is always compelling, even when the film isn't.
11/20/2020

Stephen Dorff plays an abusive MMA fighter who winds up in a match with his teenage son in Nick Sarkisov's drama.

There's one question you're likely to ask yourself while watching Nick Sarkisov's drama about the contentious relationship between an egomaniacal MMA fighter and his sensitive, 18-year-old son: Who the hell is Stephen Dorff's trainer and how much does he charge?

That's because it's otherwise hard to sustain interest over the course of Embattled, in which Dorff plays the lead role of the monstrously self-absorbed Cash. Frequently wearing little more than tight briefs, the 47-year-old Dorff displays a physique so ripped and chiseled that he more than convinces as a champion fighter whose resemblance to Conor McGregor feels strictly non-coincidental. Unfortunately, the talented actor, while delivering a fiercely compelling performance, is let down by the formulaic screenplay by David McKenna, who explored similarly abrasive territory with such previous efforts as American History X and Blow.

Embattled seems split between being a hard-edged drama revolving around a singularly unlikeable character and a wholesome, feel-good story about Cash's oldest son Jett (Darren Mann, Giant Little Ones, superb in what could have been a star-making role in a better film), as kind and sensitive as his father is boorish and abusive. Jett is the product of Cash's first marriage, to the lovely Susan (the always appealing Elizabeth Reaser), who apparently missed out on a good divorce settlement and now ekes out a living as a waitress. He also acts as a loving caretaker to Quinn, his special-needs younger brother with the developmental disability Williams Syndrome (played by the screenwriter's son Colin McKenna, who has the condition himself).

From the film's first moment to last, Cash, the sort of father who attempts to bond with Jett by giving him a lesson in drinking and driving without getting caught, is presented as despicable and obnoxious, spewing out racial, sexual and every other type of epithets he can think of while treating everyone in his orbit with undisguised contempt, including his second wife (Karrueche Tran, impressive in a small role). That would be fine for dramatic purposes if the screenplay provided some hints as to the basis of his brutal behavior, other than the standard trope of Cash having been abused by his father himself as a child. That we maintain interest in him is largely a testament to Dorff's charisma and fearsome physicality, on display as much in the domestic scenes as when his character is in the ring.

When a video is leaked showing a brutal fight between father and son, it sparks the plot's most hackneyed element: a grudge MMA match between the largely untested Jett, who has ambitions to follow in his father's footsteps, and Cash, eager to score a huge payday via the inherent drama of a father/son bout. This leads to the inevitable scenes showing Jett being trained by Claude (Said Taghmaoui, whom the film could have used more of), the only fighter who ever beat Cash, and finally the big match itself, staged and edited for such violently visceral impact that the squeamish will be averting their eyes.

Add to that such time-filling subplots as Jett setting up his mom with his soft-spoken teacher (Donald Faison) who's in a wheelchair due to his wartime injuries and Jett's relationships with his best friend (Ava Capri) and solicitous math teacher (Mimi Davila), and the film winds up feeling not so much textured as overstuffed.

Embattled proves most effective in its smaller moments, even if they feel overly familiar, such as the scenes showcasing Jett's tender relationship with his younger brother (the young McKenna is deeply affecting in his character's playful openness), when the filmmaker doesn't seem to be trying so hard to pound you into submission. Much like Dorff's overbearing Cash, the film is easier to take when it's not in your face.

Available in theaters and digital formats
Production companies: Wild League Productions, La Costa Productions, Blitz Films
Distributor: IFC Films
Cast: Stephen Dorff, Darren Mann, Colin McKenna, Karrueche Tran, Donald Faison, Ava Capri, Said Taghmaoui, Elizabeth Reaser, Leopold Manswell, Mimi Davila
Director: Nick Sarkisov
Screenwriter: David McKenna
Producers: Eryl Cochran, Scott LaStaiti, Sergey Sarkisov
Executive producers: Nick Sarkisov, Frank Ragen, Stephen Dorff, Colleen Camp, Rhys Coiro
Director of photography: Paul Ozgur
Production designer: Michael T. Perry
Editor: Mark Sanger
Composer: Michael Brook
Costume designer: Megan Spatz
Casting: Samy Burch

117 min.