It all comes down to the Big Fight in Embattled, a propulsive but familiar drama about the intersection between family dysfunction and competitive sport. We’ve seen this kind of story before, as two men are placed in the position of fighting each other in a big final confrontation that will bring one of them a lot of honor and humiliate the other for no apparent reason. The change in dynamics here is that the two men are father and son. This is an undeniably fascinating twist on what we expect from a movie like this, and to his credit, screenwriter David McKenna doesn’t push too hard into the arena of the baldly melodramatic. For a while, there is a surprisingly warm and compassionate treatment of this story, latched onto a protagonist who earns it.

Jett Boykins (Darren Mann) is haunted by legacy, specifically that of his father. Cash (Stephen Dorff) is a heavyweight champion and famed fighter for the MMA, but he is equally as well known for his live-wire personality and take-no-prisoners attitude. In other words, the man is rude, crude and unapologetic about any of it. He calls his own estranged younger son Quinn (Colin McKenna), who has special needs, an insulting shorthand for an already derogatory term, and he left his ex-wife Susan (Elizabeth Reaser) for the much younger Jade (Karrueche Tran) several years ago. Cash knows he’s hard-pressed to expect any good things to be said about him by anyone, and thankfully, McKenna doesn’t expect us to like or even to have sympathy for the guy. He really isn’t worth it.

Jett isn’t so sure. He remembers only flashes of the event that led to Cash’s unceremonious exit from his life, but he knows that there were words screamed, fists thrown and aspersions cast. He’s better off without Cash having a regular role in his life, but there’s also a lot of love beneath the hurt. He’s the young man’s father, after all, and any exposure to one of the two people who had a role in creating you is going to establish some kind of existential bond that goes beyond blood relations. This is what makes their inevitable fight such a strange direction for this story to take – both because of its inevitability and because of what it tries (and fails) to say about each man. This is rank member-measuring between a father who overestimates his own power and a son trying to figure his own life out.

In both modes, the movie is familiar in other, less convincing ways than the rock-solid opening half-hour and its focus on character over story. Once that story kicks in, it gradually slides into a formula of litigating Cash’s refusal to take responsibility for his actions and Jett’s repeated attempts to understand himself and his father. Mann is solid at capturing Jett’s angst, and Dorff’s high-wire act is impressive in that the actor finds the nuances in a role that clearly doesn’t have any. Neither performance is quite able to elevate the material, however, until the actual fight in the climax, staged and executed by director Nick Sarkisov with appreciated bluntness and vigor. Even then, the conflict is melodramatic, such as a fake-out designed entirely for creating false tension.

By then, every conflict – Cash’s relationship to his former and current wives, Susan’s flirtation with Quinn’s differently abled teacher Mr. Stewart (Donald Faison), Jett’s flirtation with reserved but nice classmate Keaton (Ava Capri), Quinn’s own struggle to reconcile his father’s demeaning attitude with his similar brother’s apparent trajectory – goes out the window with the arrival of the Big Fight. Embattled proves itself far too ordinary and neatly tidied to achieve the emotional release it tries to sell in the final scene (which attempts to reckon with the present by reckoning with the past). It’s the case of a solid setup, with characters that earn our sympathy or, at the very least, interest, and a steep drop-off once it settles.

It all comes down to the Big Fight in a propulsive but familiar drama about the intersection between family dysfunction and competitive sport.
50 %
Easy Conflict
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