This is a genre you can count on to use the same formula without having to break new ground, because if we’re completely honest, it’s not the story we’re here for right?
American Fighter centres around Irani expat, Ali Jahani (George Kotsuros aka George Thomas), during the height of the arms war with neighbouring Iraq. Beyond an interesting mise-en-scène, this ‘great on paper’ concept insufficiently serves the oomph factor that could have turned this into something greater. Instead, it found strengths in its fluid and unforced fight choreography. The college student, Jahani needs to meet a deadline to raise $30K as bombing raids begin in the city his mother is being held hostage in. Set in the pre-UFC era of the eighties, where the minimum wage is $3.35 an hour, the quick cash solution his college room mate, Ryan (Bryan Craig from General Hospital), comes up with sends Jahani into the underground fightnight realm run by local Scottish mobster, McClellan (played by Tommy Flanagan from Sons of Anarchy).
The all style tournament of MMA is an easy choice consecrating territory of combative extravagance action fans want, as very few over the past four decades have successfully translated a one-style only martial art into film. The eighties cheesiness of Karate Kid will never be able to be fully replicated again unless geared to a family friendly audience with a moral to the story. Even today, the reboot serves a large proportion of the parents and their kids watching today’s version. Donnie Yen’s Ip Man owns the mainstream award for Wing Chun, Steve Segal’s Above the Law still maintains its hold as the most memorable Akido film, Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky in Boxing while every other major Hollywood blockbuster floats between and mixes up for the most part, elements of Krav Maga, Jiu Jitsu and Muay Thai.
Now when we compare this to Kotsuros/Thomas’s work in American Wrestler, we can blame his shortcomings on a disjointed script that fails to keep him in the sweetspot that worked for him in the latter which offered more moments. We saw him at his best when Ali was suspended from the high school wrestling team for getting into a fight and telling that moving story to Principal Skinner about the Paradise key he carries around. Top act to follow in this sequel and for critics wanting another rehash, that was already done in the last movie. Supporting actor Craig is well established in drama, hitting the notes required as eventual collateral damage in his friend’s twelvth hour gamble. The two actors work well together in the setup of the forced-to-fight underdog story.
Street fight realness brought in to the illegal ring will be the deciding factor and there’s plenty of it, with secondary story arcs peppered through. While the film presents a standard training montage in the style of Rocky, it detracts from the blood, guts and (thankfully) slow motion special effects. Does the film have the power to spinoff an answer to Creed? Undecided. It’s worth a re-watch for sure.
While some might assign failed use of the anti-Muslim story arc and underdeveloped love story, the less character driven approach this time around, actually leaves over three quarters of an hour in fight sequences and fight club air time for the film’s success to hinge on.
We’ve seen how different Ali’s emotionality is having come from a war torn country which is probably why the love story with the very capacle Heidi (Allison Paige, The Flash), didn’t quite find its footing in the same way Ally and Daniel (Karate Kid) or Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) did for example.
Freestyle combat of raw natural talent beat down thanks to the laws of gravity, a brazen cockiness, lighting fast deflections, and authentic sparring fails to disappoint. This is where the film wins over fight fans, the rest may not make contextual sense or draw in appreciation for the followup without the backstory of American Wrestler.
A rivalry in the style of Never Back Down, Undisputed or Warrior might have added an extra layer of connection, but there was already enough going on on the canvas struggling to fit in to the 94 minute feature.
In hindsight, the architecture of the narrative brought forward a repeat of American Wrestler themes. For the sake fo continuity, the short appearance of Ali’s college werestling team as a result of the scholarship he was awarded in the premiere film weren’t essential to the main story, taking away precious screen time from Heidi, Ryan and Duke. At the very least, the appearance of team members from the first movie or an ongoing feud with Rowan (Kevin Schmidt, Young and the Restless) night have been a nice salute. Too many new characters sent into multiple directions inevitably left inadequate flow to tease all that out in my opinion. However, if you’re a real fight fan, you’ll appreciate the cinematics in the combative artform that delivers successfully.
The sports action drama playbook isn’t obsolete, but if it’s going to follow the formula it needs to be done with finesse, a third movie would need to tie the wrestling and MMA together. Enjoy the show!
Signature Entertainment and Defiant Screen Entertainment present American Fighter on Digital Platforms and DVD from next week 4th August
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Bryan Craig plays Ryan
Tommy Flanagan from Sons of Anarachy plays McClellan
Sean Patrick Flaery from Born a Champion plays Duke
Allison Paige from The Flash plays Heidi