Cash Boylen (Stephen Dorff) is the current MMA Lightweight Champion. Known as “The Slayer”, he is the greatest fighter in the history of the sport, with just a single career loss, and he still manages to bring in millions of viewers to his pay-per-view fights. Cash grew up with an abusive father, who gave him a warped sense of masculinity, where one must always be tough, and sensitivity is a sign of weakness. And the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree. Ten years ago, Cash’s wife Susan (Elizabeth Reaser) left him after an incident where Cash went overboard while trying to instill this same kind of tough love into his own two boys. Now Cash has a new wife, Jade (Karrueche Tran), and an 8-year-old son. It almost seems like Cash has made a fresh start, becoming a changed man, loving and caring for his new wife and child. However, inside he’s still that same angry, short-tempered man. He uses this anger in the ring—when it comes to fighting, there is no mercy, and he will do whatever it takes to win.
Cash’s 18-year-old son, Jett (Darren Mann), is starting to follow in his father’s footsteps. He is the youngest person to make it onto the U.S. judo team, and has recently reconnected with his father to train for hi dream of becoming an MMA fighter. Cash makes millions of dollars, owns four homes and nine cars, but gives his ex wife Susan nothing. His excuse is that he doesn’t want Jett to get a handout. Cash would rather see him fall flat on his face, and work his way up from the bottom, earning everything he gets—just like he had to. However, Jett is struggling in math class, and spends half his nights taking care of his special needs brother, Quinn (Colin McKenna), who has Williams syndrome. His mother works two jobs to provide for the family, and pay Quinn’s medical bills. Cash would prefer to pretend Quinn doesn’t exist—he still blames him for breaking up the family and ratting him out. Meanwhile, Jett sees fighting as a way to earn money and help out his family. However, the more time he spends with his father, the more Jett realizes that Cash is not a great guy, and a bad influence. In one scene, we see Cash instructing his son on the proper way to drink and drive to avoid getting arrested. Jett starts to see his father for who he really is—a greedy, crude, drunk, racist, sexist and xenophobic man who only really cares about himself and his fame. While Jett wants to be as good of a fighter as his father, he also has his limits, and refuses to compromise his morals in the process. As Jett sees more of his father’s darker side, he starts to unlock repressed memories surrounding the incident that led to the divorce, and calls his father out. This ultimately leads to Cash challenging him to an epic (and lucrative) father-son MMA battle. However, Susan is worried about Jett stepping into the cage with his father—Cash is a psychopath who won’t hold anything back, and might just kill his own son.
The first half of Embattled explores the characters and relationships, contrasting the loving, caring and supporting (though financially struggling) home life that Jett has with his mother and brother, with the tough-love training and luxury, excess and partying atmosphere with his father. Cash wants his son to succeed as a fighter and carry on his legacy, but he feels no qualms about beating his son down verbally and physically in the process. He doesn’t want his son to be a weakling, and he will deploy the same tactics his own father used on him, even though he didn’t turn out to be the most well-adjusted individual. The second half of the film follows Jett’s training for the big fight against his father, the match itself, and the aftermath—this is more like the Rocky part of the film.
Stephen Dorff gives a phenomenal performance, physically and emotionally transforming himself into this ruthless and despicable fighter and father who would even punch his own son to make a buck. He really looks the part and is quite believable as an accomplished MMA fighter. The film opens on his latest match as he pummels his opponent. But then you see his home life with wife Jade and son Kingston, and it appears that there is a sweet, caring person underneath, and that this “Slayer” persona may be an act. However, the more you see Cash interact with his other sons, Jett and Quinn, and the more you hear about his past, any sympathies quickly go away as the evil man that lurks underneath starts to become clear. Dorff is able to really convey both sides of this character seamlessly, and makes a wonderful villain.
Darren Mann, who apparently was a late addition to the cast, also does an amazing job as the heart and core of the film. In contrast to Cash, Jett actually loves his family. While he gets frustrated with having to constantly watch his brother, he doesn’t let that affect their relationship, knowing it’s not Quinn’s fault. He is constantly sticking up for his brother at school when he’s being bullied&,dash;though sometimes a bit of his father’s temper comes through, and best friend Keaton (Ava Capri) has to keep him in check. He’s also willing to help his mother out whenever she needs it and is always looking out for her happiness and wellbeing—even if that means setting her up on a date with a really kind and caring teacher (Donald Faison). Jett doesn’t look for shortcuts or special favors—when he’s failing his math class, he happily hires a tutor to improve his grades, rather than complaining or using his father’s name to get out of putting in the effort. He’s an honest guy, who’s willing to do the work, and while he looks up to his father’s fighting skills, he does not want to become the same kind of man he is. Jett struggles at times to figure out what the limits are, but even when he’s being pressured to cross the line, he maintains his moral compass.
While much of the film is a character drama, there are several MMA matches/fight scenes, the most exciting of which is the big battle father-son battle in the final act. The filmmakers do a nice job of ratcheting up the excitement and tension during this match. The night before the fight, Jett receives a call from his father telling him he’s going to kill him, which doesn’t really sound like an exaggeration after seeing what Cash is capable of. This provides some real stakes to the match. Both of the fighters have something to prove, but one of them has no limits and would do whatever it takes to win. There is this constant threat of will Cash go over the top and do the unthinkable? With quick cuts and a heart-pumping bass, it proves to be a tense, epic battle between good and evil.
Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray release looks quite good, with a solid, detailed picture that feels a bit gritty and raw at times, helping to evoke the emotions of the characters. Dialogue is clear throughout, but the soundtrack really comes to life during the fight sequences, where the roar of the Vegas crowd fills the room, and the audio track captures every punch, kick and slam, and there is this underlying heartbeat-like score that amps up the tension.
The Blu-ray disc comes packed in a standard Blu-ray keepcase with a carboard slipcover. The disc contains a 17-minute Making Of featurette with the cast and filmmakers, plus the theatrical trailer. There is no digital copy included.
- 1080p / Widescreen 2.40:1
- Audio: English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Surround, English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio Stereo, English Audio Descriptive Track
- Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
- The Making of Embattled (17:07)
The cast and filmmakers discuss the premise and themes of the film, the characters, training for the fights, making the fights look realistic, working with Stephen Dorff and the rest of the cast, the director’s process, defining the MMA movie genre, and more. Includes behind-the-scenes footage, and interviews with director Nick Sarkisov, writer David McKenna, stunt coordinator Don L. Lee, producer Eryl Cochran, and stars Stephen Dorff (“Cash”), Darren Mann (“Jett”), Elizabeth Reaser (“Susan”), Karrueche Tran (“Jade”), Colin McKenna (“Quinn”), Saïd Taghmaoui (“Claude”), Tyron Woodley (former UFC welterweight champion) & Kenny Florian (MMA legend).
- Theatrical Trailer (2:27)
Embattled is a solid character drama about a young man following his dreams to become an MMA fighter, but also not compromising his morals and ending up like his ruthless, abusive father in the process. It features strong dramatic performances and some really exciting MMA fight sequences. Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray release looks and sounds great, and includes an interesting 17-minute behind-the-scenes featurette with the cast/filmmakers. The film is definitely worth checking out for fans of these kind of underdog fight films like Rocky, but with more of a family drama at its core.