Review: An aspiring MMA fighter with a legendary father is ‘Embattled’ in more ways than one

Fighting with my family: Darren Mann, left, and Stephen Dorff play son and father in the affecting MMA drama "Embattled."
Fighting with my family: Darren Mann, left, and Stephen Dorff play son and father in the affecting MMA drama “Embattled.”
(IFC Films)

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As an MMA actioner, “Embattled” is an exciting, scrappy brawler. But as a moving family drama, it’s a contender.

Stephen Dorff digs deep as Cash Boykins, a legendary champ with more than 100 wins against only one career loss. He’s larger than life and twice as ugly, with brutish charm and homophobic, misogynistic joie de vivre in spades. He has reentered the life of his estranged 18-year-old son Jett (Darren Mann), a talented fighter who wants to follow in Dad’s footsteps. But there are key differences between the two that become clear as we unpeel the layers of their relationship. We learn why they were out of each other’s lives for so long and about the influences that have shaped Jett into someone who might never be like his father, for worse or for better.

Starting with a smart, heartfelt script by David McKenna (“American History X”), the movie builds a textured investigation into toxic masculinity and its long-range effects. It begins by dropping us into the noxious cloud of Cash and Jett strolling to the ring for yet another of Cash’s wipeout victories while bantering about the size of Dad’s manhood. If your moviegoing hasn’t been getting enough testosterone, here’s enough to grow hair on the soles of your mother’s feet.


Flag-waving Alabama boy Cash throws around epithet after epithet and his blood might be permanently 80 proof by now. He also calls a Russian opponent an “election-meddling [SOB]” and agitates for labor rights on behalf of less-fortunate fighters. Where those two battles end up says even more about him. Cash is the fire-scarred grizzly rumbling through “Embattled”: He parties and drinks, but sooner or later, those weathered paws are going to need to crush something.

But the movie belongs to Jett. Mann’s empathetic portrayal makes us think he could have what it takes to win in the cage while also caring for his special-needs brother Quinn (a memorable performance by Colin McKenna, the screenwriter’s son, born with Williams syndrome) and maintaining a strong relationship with his struggling single mom Susan (Elizabeth Reaser). Susan is also a fully drawn character, with frustrations and needs. Yet Jett is having trouble in school, and his family is in financial straits despite his father’s millions. He has so many powerful forces acting on him that, perhaps more than anyone else, “Embattled” applies to him. When he faces the ultimate challenge, will he have to become a monster like his father to survive it?

The film is sprinkled with telling details that allow for genuinely touching moments. When Jett confesses the strain of caring for Quinn to his mom, her response is moving. There’s a surprisingly little moment in which Jett responds to the news that his smart female friend has gotten into West Point. A reveal about Cash’s young wife (Karrueche Tran) makes her a much more interesting character and isolates Cash as the only one lacking empathy, and he seems bewildered by it.

The action must take a bow as well. The superb fight choreography by Fernando Chien is an example of how physicality doesn’t just have to be good for the camera but can relate story and reveal character. And it’s great looking and a charge to watch.

Kudos to director Nick Sarkisov for nimbly moving among the film’s different worlds. Fighting movies usually make some token wave at human beings, their deep wounds, their relationships, only to toss them aside for rear naked chokes and roundhouse kicks to the face. In “Embattled,” the human side feels explored, as if the film could have been made without the MMA scenes and still been a worthwhile watch. But it does have those adrenaline-injecting fights, so … all the better.


Rated: R
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Playing: Starts Nov. 20, Vineland Drive-in, City of Industry and in limited release where theaters are open; also available on digital and VOD