REVIEW: Embattled [2020]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 117 minutes
    Release Date: November 20th, 2020 (USA)
    Studio: IFC Films
    Director(s): Nick Sarkisov
    Writer(s): David McKenna

More than myself.

You’re either a sucker for films like director Nick Sarkisov and screenwriter David McKenna‘s Embattled or you’re not. I’m the former—a fact that’s proven especially true when the filmmakers are willing to use the fighting drama genre as a means to provide something more than just an adversarial winner takes all ambition. So I was hooked pretty much from the first scene as Cash Boykin (Stephen Dorff) runs his mouth on the way to the Octagon, pumping himself up with the crowd as his son Jett (Darren Mann) gives a few verbal jabs to keep him loose and also stoke the killer edge that’s vaulted him to two championship belts in MMA. Rather than that camaraderie, however, my investment was earned by what came next.

Namely the look in Jett’s eyes as the elation and pride conjured by his father’s objective talent washes away to be replaced by disillusionment. It happens towards the end of the match when Cash has his opponent dead to rights on the ground and proceeds to just pummel his face over and over again with a crazed look of bloodlust. Sarkisov cuts to black quickly as one more punch lands, bringing us into the chauffeured car taking Jett home. Cash is wasted and still high off the adrenaline. His wife Jade (Karrueche Tran) is trying to sleep while also putting him in check for the chauvinistic and machismo nonsense he’s spewing. And Jett is smiling again, basking in the limelight. He’s embracing this second chance at a relationship.

That’s when everything becomes clearer. This father/son bonding time is new. Cash is “on” because he’s entertaining a boy he’s done very little for over the past eighteen years. The fact that he just made a million dollars per minute during that fight is meaningless in the grand scheme of things because none of it will go into Jett’s home. His mother Susan (Elizabeth Reaser) will still pick-up shifts waitressing to supplement her day job and pay the bills raising a special needs child creates. Quinn (Colin McKenna) is also Cash’s son, but he gets even less from the man than Jett because at least his older brother has the opportunity to follow in Dad’s footsteps. Jett has value. And since money is Cash’s true God, that matters.

Jett is therefore caught between worlds intentionally drawn around his parents. The advertising push seeks to highlight the film’s climactic battle between father and son in the octagon merely because it knows that’s what sells above the introspective drama on which it feeds. That’s where the fireworks are, but it’s not where the narrative purpose lies. The true worth to Embattled is the path Jett takes to get there and the reasons for why he does. It’s about knowing that MMA is his future without forgetting the value of graduating—or pursuing help to do so—because he’s seen what the alternative supplies. That’s not to say Cash is an idiot. His threat to unionize proves he’s not while still reinforcing his me-first attitude steeped in violent rage.

The juxtapositions are obvious, but no less crucial or effective to progressing towards a seminal moment in young Jett’s life. First there’s Cash drinking and driving without recourse before screaming at his wife about how he’ll never help Susan and the boys monetarily. Then there’s Jett burning the candle on both ends juggling schoolwork, gym time, and the responsibilities that go into being a father figure to his brother due to Cash’s absence. We’re witnessing a potential future for Jett—one that would be all but assured if his father raised him. So this glimpse actually becomes everything he should reject thanks to having Susan and Quinn instead. Add a dark repressed memory slowly coming into focus and their inevitable bout becomes about much more than bragging rights.

So don’t expect to find yourself on train tracks to the usual happy ending—or sad one for that matter. Many of the stops will seem familiar, but the ways in which they’re experienced are authentic and perhaps even surprising. And while the script may use Quinn’s Mowat-Wilson syndrome and his teacher Mr. Stewart’s (Donald Faison) Silver Star-winning paraplegic as easy avenues to say something profound or set Cash up for a foot-in-mouth comeuppance, it also treats those things with enough nuanced complexity to not simply disregard the mental strength overcoming them provides. Reductive or not, contrasting how Jett and Cash treat these two characters does reveal a lot about who they are. The same goes for giving the former a Susan-surrogate as love interest (Ava Capri‘s Keaton).

In that way it’s Jade who proves the most important supporting character because she inhabits the same limbo as Jett. She’s both a trophy wife and an empathetic human being. She’s both married to a guy she knew had enough demons to give him a pre-nup and a mother willing to do anything for her child (Jakari Fraser‘s Kingston). As such, Jett isn’t the only one struggling to find his place within Cash’s oppressive shadow. His fight isn’t therefore to knock his father down a few pegs for justified revenge since Jade’s presence shows the economic disparity between hers and Susan’s lives isn’t a chasm Jett must jump to be successful. It’s a crutch Cash clings onto so he doesn’t have to realize he’s the one who’s alone.

The fight is thus secondary to everything and yet it remains tense and punishing in the best way possible where these types of things go because we truly don’t know who will come out on top. The reason is simple: neither needs the victory to achieve anything. If Cash wins (Dorff is so good at hiding his emotions under a mask of abuse that I almost wanted to give him my sympathy … almost), he’s beaten his own kid for a purse. If Jett wins (Mann really steals the show as he wrestles with who he is and who he could be), he’s still going to finish school and hold onto whatever normalcy he can. We become riveted then by the possibility that they both might lose everything.

Cash stands to forfeit his celebrity appeal. Jett may forfeit his life. Those are real world stakes threatening their very identity. The circumstances aren’t without flaws (turning this match into a decade-in-the-making event because of what happened to split Jett’s parents up isn’t a great look in its manipulation), but the characterizations more than counterbalance their convenience. Because we believe who Jett and Cash are—the love they share as well as the hate—we can see this conflict on purely economic terms (America lives for wild storylines and pitting father against son on pay-per-view is definitely that). In the end one sees winning as the point while the other holds family up higher. Maybe the latter is naïve, but it also means losing won’t leave him lost.

[1] Stephen Dorff as “Cash”, Darren Mann as “Jett Boykins” in Nick Sarkisov’s EMBATTLED. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.
[2] Stephen Dorff as “Cash”, Ethan Melisano as “Timofei Kozlov” in Nick Sarkisov’s EMBATTLED. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release. Stephen Dorff,
[3] Darren Mann as “Jett Boykins” in Nick Sarkisov’s EMBATTLED. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

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