Lionsgate // 2010 // 89 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // June 4th, 2010
Pain is temporary. Pride lasts forever.
Praise the Lord and pass the boxing gloves! Tapout has finally sponsored an MMA film that doesn't make me want to retch within the first 15 minutes like a fighter that's taken a gut shot. This time, instead of letting MMA legend Hector Echavarria take the lead, they've hired actors -- some of whom you might even have heard of. Marry that to a tried-and-true story of fighterly redemption, and you've got Circle of Pain. It's nowhere near the upper echelon of fight flicks, but it's finally an MMA film worthy of the fighters.
Circle of Pain follows semi-disgraced MMA fighter Dalton Hunt (Tony Schiena, The Merchant of Venice) who hasn't stepped into the Revolution Fight Club ring in five years after twenty-plus undefeated bouts due to a mistake he made in the ring. Now he's working construction, but Victoria (Bai Ling, Crank 2: High Voltage), the new head of the RFC, thinks there's money in putting the old champ Dalton up against her new pretty boy Colin "The Brick" Wahle (Heath Herring, Never Surrender). Although he's reluctant, Victoria pressures Dalton until he caves, and only with the help of friends Willy (Louis Herthum, Murder, She Wrote) and Wyatt (Dean Cain, Maneater) can Dalton hope to stand up to Wahle in the cage.
Circle of Pain (Blu-ray) makes two big decisions that raise it immediately above its MMA-inspired contemporaries. The first is the story. It's a fairly typical forced-to-fight story with the reluctant older fighter having to return to the ring to face the newcomer. Circle of Pain, though, adds just enough complexity to this formula to make it interesting. In addition to Dalton's own guilt, we have his ex-wife as well as a best friend in a wheelchair to add emotional weight to the situation. Sure, it's a bit heavy handed, but on balance it works surprisingly well. The pace is also rock-solid, delivering fights consistently until the main event, and the film doesn't waste a second of its 90-minute runtime. The other big thing in Circle's favor is that all the major roles (with one exception) are handled by fairly experienced actors, not MMA fighters. Tony Schiena is a little wooden as Dalton and Bai Ling is ridiculous (intentionally, I think) as Victoria, but they're balanced out by the likeable Cain and the absolutely stunning Louis Herthum. Herthum plays the trainer/mentor, and he reminds me of Ed Harris at his best, which is a pretty high compliment for a movie of this style. Heath Herring, the one fighter with a major role, acquits himself ably. He's not given much to do, but he impresses in his few scenes.
The film's fights are, by and large, okay. About half the bouts are official cage matches, and the other half informal street brawls. Unsurprisingly, given the pedigree of the film, the caged stuff looks a little more realistic and interesting. The choreographers know how to mount a successful cage match and it shows. When things turn to the street, though, it gets a bit dicey. I'm sure Wahle is a fine fighter, but when he's unleashed on a random heckler in a parking lot, both he and his opponent look like lumbering giants in a bad Saturday morning cartoon. Totally unimpressive. On the other hand, a street fight between Dalton and Kimbo Slice is better, but still not great. Like the other MMA films I've reviewed, fight fans are still probably better off getting their action fix from real bouts rather than this film.
Although this is far and away the best Tapout MMA movie I've viewed, it's nowhere near a good film. The acting is still somewhat wooden most of the time (and who can blame them with the dialogue in the script), the plot is tired, and the fights so-so. The music (mostly whiny pseudo-metal) was the only thing about the movie that made me want to throw a punch. Then there's that title, Circle of Pain, which has no connection to the movie. Is it a reference to the cage? A dysfunctional family? Hemorrhoids? There's also the fact that Kimbo Slice gets top billing on the box and is featured front and center in the poster art. He's in preciously two scenes. In one he fights for all of 30 seconds, and in the other he shows up to mumble two lines and then shake Dalton's hand. Fans looking for a lot of MMA fighters will have to look a little harder on this film.
As a Blu-ray, Circle of Pain can go the distance. The 1.78:1 transfer is pretty solid, with good detail and color accuracy. Blacks were strong, and there were no compression or authoring problems to speak of. The DTS-HD soundtrack does a fine job with dialogue and manages to balance it well with the obnoxious "music" that has to be layered over entirely too many scenes. Like other Tapout releases, this one features a number of extras that are sure to appeal to MMA fans. They start with a commentary with the director Daniel Zirill, actor Tony Schiena, and the stunt coordinator. It's not a great track, but it does include some insights into how the film was made. Then there's a behind-the-scenes featurette that includes production footage and interviews. Two different featurettes focus on the MMA aspects of the film. One looks at the fight choreography, and the other features interviews with the MMA fighters involved in the film. Finally there are some Tapout promos and trailers to finish the disc off.
Compare to other MMA films, Circle of Pain is a shining light that towers over the rest, but as a straight-up fight film it doesn't have good enough fights often enough to warrant a look by most viewers. Rabid MMA fans will certainly get their fix, and the strong audiovisual presentation and MMA-related extras make this disc a no-brainer for that crowd.
Circle of Pain is surprisingly pain-free, but still guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 89 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated R