Sony // 2011 // 94 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // October 27th, 2011
There's No Greater Battle...Than The Battle For Your Life.
What's the deal with Samuel L. Jackson? He's one of the most charismatic actors going, with iconic roles in the likes of Pulp Fiction under his belt. If that wasn't enough, he was rightly cast as Nick Fury in the latest batch of Marvel Comics-inspired movies, which will reach a new level of hype with the forthcoming release of The Avengers. Apparently this is not enough for Samuel, as he consistently turns up in the oddest of places, with direct-to-video snoozer Arena being the latest such occurrence.
Following a fatal car crash, in which his girlfriend was killed, the life of David Lord (Kellan Lutz, A Nightmare on Elm Street) spirals out of control. When he is picked up by a girl following a drunken barroom brawl, Lord is kidnapped and finds himself forced to fight in "Death Games," an illegal, yet still highly popular fighting tournament broadcast over the Internet and overseen by Logan (Samuel L. Jackson, Jackie Brown). Lord is given the mantle "Death Dealer" and forced to kill or be killed.
I don't ask much from high-concept, direct-to-video action moves like Arena. I don't expect them to be rich in plot, nor do I ask that they are dense with social commentary. All I need is a suitably exciting premise and badass characters beating the snot out of each other. Still, despite these seemingly low expectations, few movies actually come up to scratch; Arena is yet another title to add to this growing list of disappointments. Suddenly, Steven Seagal's early nineties output seems like the golden age of cinema.
It's all very well putting action at the forefront of your movie, but as Arena proves, you need more than a few arterial sprays to keep an audience entertained. Though each of the brawls features numerous gouges, slashes, and dismemberments, they are completely devoid of excitement or suspense. The choreography is uninspired, and consistently fails to take advantage of any fighting prowess any of the cast members may possess. Making matters worse is the way these fights are set against computer-generated landscapes. These add nothing to the concept, and are seemingly only there to appeal to the videogame crowd. They are also often poorly conceived, lending the film an unwanted amateur feel.
Nobody is realistically going to expect a movie like Arena to have an award-winning screenplay, but equally few would anticipate the writers would deliver a script that seems intent on derailing the film at every turn. For reasons that are never made clear, the decision was made to cram ninety percent of the plot into the final 15 minutes of the film, leaving too little time for it to really make any difference to how the viewers perceives the movie. The result of this is a film totally lacking in tension. We know very little about David Lord at the beginning of the movie, and so have no real reason to side with him against any of the other fighters who are also being held (apparently) against their will. What becomes clear very quickly is that David takes to killing like a duck to water, so by the time the truth is revealed during the final act it has become even more difficult to cheer him on, especially having seen his bloodlust reach psychotic levels.
If all this weren't enough, the film is littered with laughable dialogue that reads like a twelve-year old's attempt at aping a Shane Black (The Last Boy Scout) script -- Exhibit A being the clunker: "Life sucks, scars happen."
When it's not crushing skulls, Arena doesn't really know what to do with itself. There are numerous shots of scantily clad or naked women paraded around (because, well, that's what action films do, right?), and there's plenty of pouting from our hero, but no one could really consider this interesting. As already mentioned, anything resembling an actual plot is the sole reserve of the final act, so the rest of the film hinges squarely on the performance of Samuel L. Jackson, whose appearances come all too fleetingly to break the monotony. Leading man Kellan Lutz may have the looks of an action hero, but he currently lacks the screen presence to really impose himself in the way that is required. Jonah Loop's direction does little to warrant any praise. This is an amazingly bland-looking movie, with nothing to rouse the viewer.
Regardless of the film's failings, it is still treated to a fine 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer. Black levels are excellent, with strong colors allied to a sharp, detailed picture. The 5.1 soundtrack features clear dialogue, with a decent, though rarely exciting use of rear speakers. There are no special features included on the disc, except for a few trailers.
Arena could easily be confused as the latest entry in Paul W.S. Anderson's Death Race series, sharing similarities in particular with 2010's DTV prequel, Death Race 2. Whereas the Death Race movies offered brainless fun, Arena struggles to offer anything beyond an over-the-top performance from Samuel L. Jackson.
Jackson is, not surprisingly, the best part of Arena; but much like his turn as The Octopus in Frank Miller's much maligned The Spirit, all his bombast and overacting is ultimately for naught. It's a shame, no doubt, as the sight of a cackling, maniacal, monologue-loving Jackson is irresistible, but, for all its posturing, Arena never manages to man up and deliver real bone-crushing action.
Guilt, thy name is Arena.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R