Embattled is a challenging film, more ambitious than the typical sports movie.
The film focuses on Jett Boykins (Darren Mann), the eldest son of famed MMA fighter Cash Boykins (Stephen Dorff), pursuing his goal of becoming a prizefighter himself. At the same time, he’s forced to confront his new relationship with Cash while maintaining a relationship with his mother and younger brother, who has Walters Syndrome.
The dynamic between Jett and Cash is the best aspect of the film. The way they trade off each other feels like a genuine father/son relationship. They have real chemistry, and it’s easy to see how their dynamic is toxic but has still lasted so long. You feel the history between the two, and the film hints at the abusive relationship just enough where you can register Jett’s triggers without being gratuitous.
The nuances regarding their relationship stem heavily from their performances. Darren Mann gives a reserved but still strong performance, always feeling like he’s got something to prove. He doesn’t show the traditional “chip on his shoulder” that’s often found with characters like Jett. He’s kind, considerate, tough when he needs to be, and his fight scenes are desperate, full of fire. Stephen Dorff, as Cash, is the clear standout, as he wisps between casual and terrifying. His performance feels dominant and aggressive, but with enough unique character traits that make him more than a generic bully. He feels like he has a history and a logic for why he treats Jett so aggressively, beyond just being insecure like most abusive dads in movies. You can see how people could be friends with Cash, how people would find him attractive, while still showing a lot of rage beneath the surface.
The film also addresses other topics that add layers to the main story. In addition to the family tension between Cash and Jett, the film explores MMA fighters’ exploitation and the experiences of kids with disabilities. These moments don’t always gel very well, sometimes interrupting the flow of the main plot, but they do contribute to characterization for Cash and Jett.
Embattled could’ve benefited with some more focused writing but it’s saved by its stellar performances and interesting characters. Sports movie fans will enjoy the MMA fights in Embattled, which are well choreographed and showcase characterization effectively. Additionally, the emotional dynamic between Jett and Cash will interest fans and non-fans of the sport. It’s definitely a movie you won’t want to miss.
Embattled will be in Select Theaters & on VOD November 20, 2020