Brash, arrogant, casually racist and abusive towards women, Stephen Dorff channels the attitude of Conor McGregor to a tee in Embattled, an MMA drama that ponders the impact of such a corrosive figure beyond the octagon. Dorff oozes all types of toxic masculinity as fictional grappler Cash Boykins, whose personality might be a perfect fit to sell tickets, but makes him less than suitable as a father-figure and husband.
Director Nick Sarkisov locks all of his characters in a cage of their own making. Cash’s trashy public persona extends to his ex-wife Susan (Elizabeth Reaser), who he physically abused, then left with two boys, Jett (Darren Mann, a surprising find) and special-needs son (Colin McKenna) to care for on her own. Now that Jett has started his own MMA career, Cash is suddenly very interested in the boy, and he in turn, likes having his father back in his life. Jett is still caught in the middle of his two warring parents, however, seeing how his mom struggles to get by while Cash owns multiple homes, multiple cars, and has a new hot young wife to watch over.
Embattled doesn’t follow the expected arc of redemption that we would expect from most family sports dramas. Good, because I’m tired of that familiar damn story. David McKenna’s screenplay suggests a potential path of enlightenment for Cash, one in which he puts aside the huge persona and paparazzi scandals for a chance to reconnect with family, to be a part of his sons’ lives. But as he rips into Jett physically and verbally, while also berating Susan needlessly, it becomes clear there is no hope for someone like Cash.
We come to that realization just as Embattled takes a hard right swerve and goes in a wildly different, and fruitful direction. When video leaks of a fight that broke out between Cash and Jett, the latter having finally realized the extent of his father’s cruelty, promoters swarm with a Boykins vs. Boykins showdown for the ages. Blinded by the millions of dollars being thrown his way, Cash jumps at the opportunity, with the suggestion that the public loathes his decision to put money before family. On the other hand, the public sees Jett as the babyface here, who has broken free of his father’s tyranny and now must slay the dragon to move on, so to speak.
It’s interesting the way Sarkisov and McKenna depict the fickle sports audience, who loved Cash and his boorish behavior right up until the moment they decided not to. There’s no good way to believably sell the vast gap in experience between Cash and Jett, however, and it hinders Embattled as it builds to the inevitable confrontation which…well, it’s brutal and bittersweet and does not go as the formula would have you think. Ducking and weaving away from our presumptions, Embattled embraces the idea that violent men will use the only means they know to break a barbaric cycle. While some will see it as perpetuating that very same violence, the film ends on a note that says otherwise, that having moral clarity and a sense of responsibility to others will lead to true victory.