Content warning for a (plot-specific) mention of human trafficking and sexual abuse in the piece.
A few weeks ago, I gave myself some dumbass assignment and asked Twitter to help me with it.
MMA Twitter, I KNOW you'll have opinions on this and will be able to help me:
What is the worst MMA movie you've ever watched?
— Fernanda Prates (@NandaPrates_) June 18, 2021
As the effects of what I now believe to have been a powerful state of nutella-induced euphoria subsided, however, I realized I might have made a mistake. First of all, as a non-ironic wearer of skinny ripped jeans and listener of Norwegian pop duo M2M, I believe there is really no such thing as “good” and “bad” art. By using the word “worst” I was implying some kind of intrinsic artistic value and I did not raise myself to be such a judgmental little bitch. So I’d like to apologize for my terrible behavior and reiterate you are allowed to like what you like, as long as it’s not racist, homophobic, misogynistic, or The Blue Man Group.
Second of all, I realized writing about the movies meant watching them. And as I sunk into a sea of spinning back kicks set to heavily syncopated guitar riffs, I realized that there really is a limit to how much rehearsed violence the human brain is able to absorb before reality collapses onto itself. I now live in fear of spontaneous parking lot battles between wide-necked men with tribal tattoos. I wonder if the people I love are actually nice or just sharply-dressed villains with thick accents and nefarious agendas. I can’t attend fancy house parties without expecting to find an underground teenage fight club. The sound of my inner monologue is now the voice of Heath Herring (shirtless, which you’d think doesn’t make a difference monologue-wise, but totally does).
It was a price, some would say, too high. But one I was nonetheless willing to pay.
What you will read below is the result of my efforts. Before we proceed, though, a few notes on format. Although the original idea was to create some kind of rankings, I realized that it wasn’t fair to compare movies that were so beautiful in their own special little ways. So I simply reviewed five of Twitter’s suggestions instead, highlighting positives, negatives and my personal favorite tweet. The selection was based on different criteria. Never Back Down and Never Surrender, for instance, were picked due to the sheer volume of mentions. Here Comes The Boom was chosen based on clear the rift between its detractors and fans. Redbelt stood out for its apparent lack of self-awarenesses. And, lastly, Circle of Pain just seemed too deranged to pass up.
Never Back Down
At first, I was convinced that nothing in Never Back Down could possibly be any less believable than the early interaction between the objectively good-looking jock who was being treated as a dork because he wore flannels (?) and the objectively good-looking popular girl who had read The Iliad (???!) so many times that her copy was falling apart (she’s not like other girls!).
By the time we got to the topless girls making out in a tub in the middle of a house party while an intergender teenage fight club casually unfolded in the backyard, however, I realized I may have been wrong.
I mean, is it possible that my shock is just a culture gap thing? Of course. Maybe I’m just letting my Brazilian-ness blind me to the realities of high-school life in the U.S. Maybe it really is common for your average youngster to unwind (on a school night, no less) by strapping on small gloves, heading to a fancy house and battling everyone from their bros to their exes as their peers watch and cheer. Maybe coercing their foes into joining high-stakes MMA tournaments inside nightclubs really was the way that high-school-aged boys settled scores back in 2008. Maybe the cool kids really were all about that ancient epic poems in dactylic hexameter life. If that’s the case, I am sorry, Never Back Down, for my myopic analysis of your very realistic piece of cinematography.
And if that’s not the case, well… What is reality but a series of arbitrary postulations meant to keep us tethered to obsolete conceptual models, anyway?
From what I could gather from the replies to my tweet, Never Back Down spirals terribly in its multiple sequels (?), which is probably the least surprising thing that’s ever happened. But, when it comes to the original one, I’m with IMDB reviewer who defined it as “bright,” “pretty” and “a relic of a bygone era.” It can totally be an enjoyable experience if you let it. The main character, who is obviously named Jake Tyler because what else would he be named, has some layers as a young man who can’t channel the rage left by the death of his father. Jake’s mom is awesome. His nerdy friend with a camera is fun as the nerdy friend with a camera. Djimon Hounsou truly shines as the Wise Coach Haunted By Demons Of His Own™. Amber Heard is convincing as the Impossibly Gorgeous Girl Who Contains Multitudes™. And then there’s Cam Gigandet doing Cam Gigandet things, which is always enriching.
Is it *a little problematic* that Jake’s whole thing is never tapping to anything even though he’s about to pass out and/or be dismembered? Maybe. Should we really be teaching the youth that one way to get the rich bully to back off is to enroll in a one-night nightclub tournament, compete against a thousand grown men and then ignore a broken rib to fight him in a parking lot? Perhaps not. Should multiple adults be jailed for allowing several of the events in this film to take place?
From what little I know of the law and common sense, most likely.
But, honestly, why overthink it? Disregard what you know about high-school students, the sport of MMA, and the Earthly plane in which these things exist and you should be fine.
Positives: high production value, soundtrack that very much appeals to my elderly millennial sensibilities, Wise Coach.
Negatives: That’s not really how teenagers work, that’s not really how MMA works, that’s almost certainly now how these two concepts work together.
Top Twitter Review: “When I was a kid I liked Never Back Down. That memory makes me want to rub salt in my own eyes.”
“Is there room for principle in Los Angeles? Mike Terry teaches jujitsu and barely makes ends meet. His Brazilian wife, whose family promotes fights, wants to see Mike in the ring making money, but to him competition is degrading. A woman sideswipes Mike’s car and then, after an odd sequence of events, shoots out the studio’s window. Later that evening, Mike rescues an action movie star in a fistfight at a bar. In return, the actor befriends Mike, gives him a gift, offers him work on his newest film, and introduces Mike’s wife to his own — the women initiate business dealings. Then, things go sour all at once, Mike’s debts mount, and going into the ring may be his only option.”
As much as I would like to take credit for this description of Redbelt, I have to admit it isn’t my doing. This was actually the admirable work of some IMDB user who was able to do something I wasn’t and actually comprehend this movie enough to summarize it in a few lines. I think this is a pretty accurate description, but I honestly can’t say for sure, because I still don’t think I’m smart enough to get it. I know my fellow countrywoman Alice Braga is in it, which is cool despite the fact she does nothing but talk on the phone, look annoyed and generally be a bad person. I know Brazil’s eternal crush Rodrigo Santoro is in it, which is also cool despite the fact he’s just a money-hungry dickhead who straight-up sucks. I know Tim Allen is in it playing a rich famous asshole and I know that Joe Mantegna is in it as his fellow asshole/right-hand man and I know that they’re joined by a tormented cop with the world’s shittiest wife and that all the events that transpire are ultimately part of a bigger plan to fuck over Mike Terry.
Why? Beats me. Mike Terry might be mind-numbingly boring and speak like a human fortune cookie but is ultimately a nice guy who does nothing but try to help people and get them out of fights and say philosophical things while teaching them rad martial arts stuff.
In any case, some of the people who nominated Redbelt for this category said they picked it because it took itself way too seriously, and I can see why they would feel that way. Unlike other movies on this list, which seem to fully embrace their bedazzledafflictionshirtness and run with it, Redbelt is a more intellectual endeavor. It has an all-star cast, it doesn’t feature several gratuitous parking lot fight scenes, there is nary a thong or rogue boob in sight. It’s something different, and that’s cool.
Still, and maybe this is just my failure of imagination, if I’m watching a serious movie I kind of expect to believe the serious situations in it. And, for some reason, I have some trouble buying into the succession of unfortunate events that ultimately lead Terry to competing in a tournament where professional fighters accept the possibility of fighting with one or both hands tied behind their backs.
I mean, I’ve seen a lot of gimmicks during my years in the biz, and the fact that no U.S. promotion has ever stolen the movie’s idea of using marbles to assign “handicaps” to its fighters under the guise of some ancient samurai wisdom says a lot about its real-life feasibility. Because you know they thought about it.
Again, though, this could just be me. Maybe I just lack the creativity or the intellectual depth to fully grasp what’s happening. Maybe my brain just needs faded mohawks and gratuitous showings of the female anatomy set to Staind-adjacent music in order to comprehend it’s watching an MMA movie. If nothing else, I appreciate the initiative to take a different approach to the theme and do it while using actual good actors and legitimate Brazilian talent.
Positives: Great actors, different, actual Brazilians speaking Brazilian Portuguese, that random magician at the bar, Randy Couture is actually good.
Negatives: It’s *a lot*.
Top Twitter Review: “100% sure is the worst well-done MMA movie ever.”
Here Comes The Boom
Unlike most of the movies on this list, this one wasn’t unanimously dunked on in my mentions.
It was, in fact, quite divisive, coming up both among those who actually answered my question and those who just wanted to do their own thing and talk about their favorite MMA movies (not the assignment, but I appreciate your energy regardless). I was moved by all this passion, especially considering I had actually watched Here Comes The Boom before and at no point did I remember developing takes, thoughts, or a single emotion about it.
Why had I been so indifferent to this movie when everyone else seemed to have some kind of opinion about it?
I needed to investigate.
Well, my first guess is that I was a snob back in 2012 and probably thought I was above any and all comedy involving highly unremarkable men who somehow manage to get with hot cool women. I was also still *very into* the stage of my MMA fandom in which I intellectualized every aspect of it, so maybe a straight-shooting movie that didn’t paint fighting as a metaphorical endeavor speaking to the duality of men didn’t satisfy my very sophisticated needs. Maybe I was just too busy being emotionally manipulated by self-important assholes who could marginally play the guitar. Who knows what the fuck was up with 2012 me. What I can say is that nine years later, having mostly forfeited my attachment to personhood and realized that nothing is ever important, I mostly enjoyed these entirely harmless 105 minutes spent in Kevin James’ company.
First of all, let’s just establish one thing: The movie is fun. That is not an opinion as much as it is a statement of fact, an impartial observation, an objective assessment of reality. And that truly is all there is to it. Unlike 90 percent of MMA or loosely fight-related movies, this one isn’t built around profound human pain or unimaginable personal tragedy. The main character’s MMA journey isn’t kick-started by some deep-seated trauma or fucked-up family dynamics. He’s just a biology teacher who wants to raise enough money to help his father-to-be colleague and save the school’s music program. And also maybe bang Salma Hayek. Which is fair, because who wouldn’t want to bang Salma Hayek? If that’s not enough motivation to put your body through all forms of hurt and risk all sorts of permanent danger and/or public humiliation, I don’t know what is.
There’s also Bas Rutten, and The Fonz, and all kinds of fun little MMA cameos. The fight scenes are pretty entertaining. There was obviously research involved. The movie jokes about MMA but still respects it. They even gave Kevin James a wrestling background so that we could be less offended by the notion of him challenging literally everything we know about sports, the human body and basic logic. And I am being deadly serious when I say that his mitt work is vastly superior to Logan Paul’s. It’s sort of wholesome and entirely silly and I will absolutely still be unable to remember a single thing about it when I decide to write this same article nine years from now but that’s OK because life is meaningless and so are we 🙂
Positives: wholesome, light-hearted, well-made, well-acted, paints MMA in a good light (arguably better than it deserves).
Negatives: I had watched the whole movie before and didn’t remember literally a single thing about it, so there’s that.
Defined by Wikipedia as “a 2009 MMA film about an MMA champion who finds himself fighting in illegal underground cage fights,” this movie is just that, but it is also so much more. It is intrigue, it is sex, and it is most of all a glimpse into a dystopian world where stonewashed jeans, chains and all of Heath Herring’s hairstyles have melded together to form one all-powerful sentient entity.
See, the thing is, when you read about a loosely designated “champion” entering “illegal underground cage fights,” you could really be talking about the plot of 85 percent of martial arts movies. Since Jean Claude Van-Damme literally invented fighting with “Bloodsport,” several people have tried (and failed) to repeat what was obviously the most successful formula of all time.
As the Russian villain wearing the pinstripe suit explained, though, Never Surrender‘s illegal martial arts tournament isn’t like other illegal martial arts tournaments. It’s a cool illegal martial arts tournament. For starters, its contestants don’t get silly prizes like money or material items: Rather, winners get to have the “consort” — as in, an actual real-life woman — that their losing opponents put on the line. And if that sounds totally misogynistic and disgusting, don’t worry: Protagonist Diego (played by director and co-writer Hector Echavarria) only sleeps with like 15 of them before realizing that, shockingly, the consorts aren’t exactly volunteers in this situation. As later explained by one of the women:
“Rumor has it (Russian villain in pinstripe suit) killed several men in the ring. After that, he escaped and fled here to America. It was his idea to combine the prostitution ring and the underground tournaments. I can’t imagine what kind of monster would be so cruel*.”
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. There are several things that are important to note before we get to the part where Diego defeats Mr. Russian Villain and dismantles his human trafficking scheme after being moved into a giant mansion and falling in love for the “consort” who was forced to trick him into the tournament only to be later claimed as his prize.
For starters, as we learn from a totally organic TV segment played early in the movie, Diego is the world’s “toughest pound-for-pound fighter in his weight class” and a “fearless technician whose punches carry the dreams of a small child who grew up off the coast of La Plata.”
After an ascent to the top “paved with hardship and humility,” he now lives in Los Angeles, where he “toils in the shadows of the Hollywood limelight.” He’s also friends with Georges St-Pierre, Rampage Jackson and B.J. Penn — all of whom, much like musical characters taking their queues from the quotidian to burst into song, need only the smallest of escalations to burst into spinning kicks. There’s also Heath Herring, who adds just the amount of Heath Herring-ness this particular endeavor required. Anderson Silva is also in it, though I don’t really remember whether he’s a good guy or a bad guy because frankly it’s irrelevant. All that matters is that he does Anderson Silva things and does it in jeans, which is cool but not quite as cool as Mr. Russian Villain fighting in pleated pants and a belt (no shirt) or Mr. Less Important Auxiliary Villain who rocks a full-on beret + striped scarf ensemble.
There are also training montages, falling-in-love montages, and a lot of gloriously incomprehensible nudity — including, but not limited to: a woman being held captive by Mr. Russian Villain with her red dress perfectly arranged to display 1 (one) singular breast. There are also parking lot fights, the kind of eyewear that accompanies “christian, father, gun owner” on Twitter bios, an infinity of spinning shit and enough nu metal to give you lead poisoning. Truly, and for better or worse, this might be the MMA-iest thing to ever happen.
Positives: It’s… A thing that happened.
Negatives: It’s… A thing that happened.
Top Twitter Review: “Never Surrender, starring the greatest thespian of our time, Hector Echavarria. There’s an early scene in which GSP makes a sandwich and carries it through multiple rooms in a huge mansion to his TV room where he then watches fights and fidgets like he has ants in his pants.”
Circle Of Pain
Contrary to popular belief, I am not always an angry dark cloud just looking for a chance make things miserable to myself and those around me. So I’ll start with a nice remark: In a bit of a break from the mold, Circle of Pain casts a woman (Bai Ling) as the incomprehensibly evil person who torments some poor schmuck for no reason other than the fact that she’s a very wealthy villain and there’s only so much of your time that can be filled by smoking cartoonish cigars and drinking expensive liquor and making out with your masseuse.
Way to help break that glass ceiling, guys.
Other than that, though… While I am not quite ready to go as far as the IMDB user who reviewed the 2010 production as the “worst thing that’s ever happened to me” and likened it to “bathing in acid with open sores,” I can confidently say it wasn’t the best thing that happened to me, either.
The storyline is pretty standard: A dude who used to be very good at fighting (Tony Schiena) is no longer fighting because something traumatic happened. Some shit happened with his wife, because she’s now his ex, but he still takes care of her and her daughter because he might be tormented but his heart is in the right place. He has a roommate (friend? brother? cousin?) who is in a wheelchair and is also Dean Cain. Dean Cain has a positive outlook on life but also apparently has alcohol issues, as we find out by the very subtle empty bottle placed by his fallen body when tormented dude comes home.
Also, it’s in that subtle scene we get another subtle plot twist: The reason why Dean Cain is in a wheelchair is actually tormented dude, who *gasps* threw a spinning kick right into his spine in training. We know that because Dean Cain was watching this very tape before passing out drunk and tormented dude happened to walk in right as this specific part was playing. Naturally.
Tormented dude used to compete for the organization that is now run by the wealthy villain, back when it was run by her dad. The dad wasn’t evil and let the dude out of his contract when he still had one fight to go, but the lady won’t offer the same courtesy. She WANTS him to fight again. Unfortunately for him — as you can tell by the fact that she gets to drink bourbon in the middle of the day — this is a lady who KNOWS what SHE WANTS and doesn’t REST until she GETS it #girlboss. So tormented dude finally accepts, but will naturally need the help of a jaded trainer with a strong character and unconventional methods.
Unfortunately, for reasons I can’t quite comprehend, neither this beautifully deranged storyline nor all the softcore porn are able to turn the movie around. To put it in the same terms that my dad used to describe my teenage fashion choices: The editing is… Peculiar. The dialogue is… Exotic. The script is… An attempt at a thing? But, most importantly, it is just not a fun experience.
While Never Surrender seems to fully lean into its Never Surrender-ity (?), Circle of Pain just hovers in a weird limbo. The fight scenes are just not particularly fun or well-made. There is always some weird shit going on with people’s blood patterns. Kimbo Slice doesn’t get nearly enough screen time. For some reason I initially thought the actual Heath Herring was just some guy who looks a lot like Heath Herring pretending to be Heath Herring which I guess is more of a me thing than a movie thing but I wanted to vent. The whole thing is ultimately a bouillabaisse of tired tropes, tattoos and tits and for the first time in my life I mean that as an insult.
Positives: Good on you for reminding the world that women can also be soulless horny assholes, angsty montages, Kimbo Slice.
Negatives: Pretty much everything else 🙁
Top Twitter Review: “It has Heath Herring and his lackey in multiple sex scenes, is home to easily the worst fight (the infamous Mir vs. Herring in the parking lot), the main actor is an absolute lump, and has the most nu metal riffs of any MMA movie. And I’ve seen them all.”