A chokehold on action

Times Staff Writer

Since the '70s, they have arrived in grind-house movie theaters each year with the inexorable certainty of new moons and changing seasons: martial arts films featuring sweaty men engaged in hand-to-hand combat, pledging fealty to codes of honor, duty and dojo respect.

But 2008 is shaping up to be a watershed on the chop-socky film front.

To hear it from Hong Kong movie stars, zeitgeist chasers, action enthusiasts -- even a Serious Auteur -- Hollywood has set its sights on the next new thing: mixed martial arts.

In MMA (as aficionados call this polymathic blood sport), every physical punishment short of eye-gouging, biting and below-the-belt cheap shots is officially sanctioned. It's the stuff of those hugely popular Ultimate Fighting Championship bouts: down and dirty, jujitsu-style grappling that utilizes a repertoire of arm bars, leg locks, chokeholds and submission poses in addition to the obligatory karate kicks and punches.

Ergo, the new movies featuring MMA -- the teen-skewing coming-of-age story "Never Back Down" and the bloody Hong Kong police procedural "Flash Point" (both of which open Friday); David Mamet's martial arts Catch-22 "Redbelt" (out in May); and the documentaries "Caged for Life" (which will screen at the Beverly Hills Film Festival next month) and the well-reviewed, mom-and-pop-produced indie feature "Under Pressure: Diary of a Cage Fighter's Wife" -- showcase gritty fisticuffs and wrestling tussles quite unlike the vast majority of filmic fighting popular up until this point.

"Flash Point" star Donnie Yen is one of Asia's most revered action heroes, a veteran of some 50 thrillers who directed all the stunts in his latest film. In Yen's view, MMA's visceral approximation of nasty street brawling already has changed the face of movie action -- a revolutionary shift away from the stylized kind of high-wire fight choreography that helped popularize films such as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and the "Matrix" trilogy.

"I think MMA is here to stay," Yen said by phone from Shanghai. "For me as an action director, it's where action filmmaking is going. Now people will laugh at you if you do all that fancy jumping in the air. It wouldn't work in a real situation. I think you're going to have MMA in contemporary action films from now on."

Teen fighters

It's enough to make Jean-Claude van Damme cry. Unlike with previous generations of movie tough guys, the victor in MMA films' climactic battles is never the last man standing. He's either on the ground with the other guy in a headlock or twisting his limbs into a pretzel.

In "Never Back Down" -- the first American-made MMA-focused film to receive a wide theatrical release -- hot-headed Iowa football hero Jake Tyler (played by Sean Faris) relocates to Orlando, Fla., only to find himself sucked into a teen version of "Fight Club" after the school bully (Cam Gigandet) publicly humiliates him using MMA. But under the tutelage of a sagely mixed martial arts instructor (Djimon Hounsou in the Mr. Miyagi role), Jake attempts to right his life, channel his rage into positivity and protect those he loves from MMA bullies.

"Never Back Down's" director, Jeff Wadlow, said he was aware of MMA's reputation as the fastest-growing sport in America but hardly qualified as an aficionado before signing on to the project. "There are some good reasons it's exploding in popularity and some not-so-good reasons," Wadlow said. "People can appreciate the strategic, tactical aspects of close-quarters, ground game fighting. But there are people who perceive MMA as more violent, as legalized street fighting. We wanted to look at it in terms of life as a struggle. As Djimon's character says, 'Everyone has their fight.' "

"Never Back Down's" writer, Chris Hauty, said he felt fortunate to be an early responder to MMA's sudden mass appeal. "I couldn't believe there were so few attempts to set a film in this world," Hauty said. "In any subject, there's only a limited number of stories to tell. So when there's the inevitable movie featuring an MMA master being blasted off to Planet X, you'll know the ground is too well tilled."

Tamera and Todd Sturgis, the director and documentary subject of "Under Pressure," never set out to make an MMA movie. Todd Sturgis, a former state wrestling champion turned long-haul truck driver, was looking to get back into fighting shape via mixed martial arts. And Tamera Sturgis (who also drives a big rig and has appeared in the "Stacked & Packed" calendar series as a bikini model) started filming his training sessions in 2003 to show friends and family the brutal yet fascinating subculture into which her husband had thrown himself.

"I thought, 'This is insane. I have to get this on tape,' " she said. "But then I got so much interest from anyone who ever saw me with a camera -- everyone I came across was saying, 'I want to see whatever it is you shot' -- I thought, 'There's a lot more to this than showing the family what Todd's doing at the downtown gym.' "

The couple self-financed the $50,000 film, a personal saga that depicts not only cringe-inducing cage match action but also the tight-knit MMA community (wives, children, parents and even supportive librarians). Three years after its completion, "Under Pressure" has not been picked up by a distributor despite glowing reviews in the MMA press (for info, check www.mycage fighter.com).

The documentary "Caged for Life" similarly depicts the heartbreak, jubilation and grueling training regimen that come with competing in MMA. The film also spotlights the sport's growing maturation, following a selection of male and female combatants headed for a title ticket to be broadcast on Showtime -- mixed martial arts' premium cable TV premiere. (Last month, CBS announced plans to begin airing MMA fight cards on Saturday nights beginning next year.)

David Mamet's 'Redbelt'

But of the current crop of mixed martial arts movies, none comes with the art-house expectations or concerted, multi-platform marketing push of essayist-playwright-director-screenwriter David Mamet's "Redbelt."

The action drama follows Brazilian jujitsu instructor Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who imparts to his students street survival skills in lieu of promoting contest competition. A series of unfortunate events brings Mike into the orbit of an action movie hero (Tim Allen) and his Hollywood minions. But soon, Mike finds himself backed into a corner as a result of an elaborate con job and is forced to violate his personal ethics -- he never fights for profit -- in order to salvage his business, marriage and sense of pride.

According to "Redbelt" producer Chrisann Verges, Mamet felt compelled to set the movie within MMA because of his personal involvement with jujitsu. The 60-year-old Oscar nominee is an accomplished martial artist.

"David's a brown belt; he started training six years ago and got captivated by the whole world of fighters -- by their dignity and respect for tradition," Verges said. "He wanted to write an American samurai story and thought the world of jujitsu would be perfect for it."

The producer denied that MMA's sudden cultural ubiquity had factored into Mamet's interest: "There was no commercial impetus. He had no idea MMA was going to take off. He was not trying to cash in on something."

"Redbelt's" distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, plans to promote the film to both the art house and the grind house: It's running commercials and holding giveaway contests in conjunction with the mucho macho cable channel Spike TV. But also, Mamet has been invited to privately screen the movie for members at New York's Lincoln Center.

"This movie legitimizes the world of MMA," said Sony Pictures Classics co-founder and co-president Tom Bernard. "Mamet made a fight movie that's like a '40s fight movie with John Garfield. It's not exploitative. You don't have guys going to Thailand, sweating it out. So we have two campaigns: one directed at MMA guys and another at the more upscale theaters. The movie appeals to both sides."

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chris.lee@latimes.com

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