Lionsgate // 2009 // 90 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // January 8th, 2010
Let the games begin!
The "forced to fight" film is a potent subgenre of the martial arts film. Its premise is beautifully simple: take a martial arts master (and by master, we generally mean someone who has mastered their craft enough to never have to fight for themselves again) and compel him or her to fight. Sometimes the compulsion comes from the final promise to a dying master, sometimes for revenge, or, in the most brutally simple incarnation, the ringmaster simply holds a friend or family member hostage. This subgenre is often combined with the tournament subgenre, and a fighter is forced to fight other martial artists who are similarly compelled to kill. Death Warrior is an example of this deadly combo, and it serves as a warning to anyone who would mix MMA and movies.
Fighter Reinero (MMA great Hector Echevarria) is forced to fight a string of other MMA fighters because his wife has been injected with a neurotoxin. The other fighters are in similar situations, and the entire affair has been orchestrated so that rich folks can bet on the matchups. Naturally Reinero has to figure out who's behind everything and stop him before too many people (including his wife) die.
Real fights (where the object is to kill or maim the opponent) are not very pretty things to watch. There are no high-flying kicks and spectacular combos. More often than not the two fighters end up grappling on the ground looking like a pair of drunks whispering "I love you man" into each other's ears. I suspect the only reason MMA continues to grow as quickly as it does is because for all the ugliness of the fighting (and from the brief glimpses I've seen of MMA bouts, they're not particularly pretty), it is at least real. Cinematic violence is almost the exact opposite. Fighters do outlandish moves that often contradict gravity, and the camera can explore these motions in minute detail thanks to slow motion and CGI effects. The upshot of this dichotomy is that simply putting MMA-style violence onscreen doesn't work. The appeal of MMA fighting is that it's real, so it can afford to be ugly. When filmmakers create fictional MMA fighting they lose the realism, and unless they start substituting with some of the tried-and-true cinematic effects, they risk losing the impact of the violence. This is the exact situation Death Warrior finds itself. I have very little doubt that all the MMA stars are capable fighters, and I wouldn't dare get into the ring with any of them. However, give me a camera and somebody's 90-year-old grandmother and I can make her look like a more competent fighter than any of them through slow-mo and editing tricks.
The problem is that while all these fighters know how to throw a punch, they have no idea how to communicate that punch to an audience through the medium of cinema. They're not trained stuntmen, so the fact that they can beat their opponent senseless is actually a liability. It doesn't help that director Bill Corcoran does everything he possibly can to not show the violence between these guys. We get quick edits, moves only seen in silhouette, and impacts just outside of frame. I was honestly reminded of the tricks that slasher films had to use at the height of MPAA enforcement to avoid the dreaded X rating. Death Warrior promises a boatload of violence between its famous stars and utterly fails to deliver.
What it does have is gratuitous nudity and a generic nu-metalish soundtrack, both of which are obnoxious. Watching Death Warrior made me think Russ Meyer was in charge, telling the director he needed bare (and might I add fake) breasts every few minutes or the audience was going to lose interest in the film. The metal soundtrack seems to attempt the same distracting job, as it appears during otherwise lackluster fight scenes.
This Blu-ray is a fine edition of the film. The transfer does a decent job with the material. Some of the darker scenes show a bit of noise, and the image doesn't "pop" like it could, but it's certainly watchable. The audio does a similarly decent job, with good dynamics on everything from the music to the fight sounds. The extras are slight but appropriate. We get a standard behind-the-scenes video, interviews with the principals, a featurette on training in Hawaii, and a host of previews for other TapouT sponsored products.
Death Warrior proves once and for all that good fighters do not make a good fight film. The irrational plot, poor characterization, and empty fight scenes all combine to kill the potential of Death Warrior. For die-hard MMA fans this is a decent little Blu-ray release that includes some interviews fans will likely appreciate, but a rental is all I can recommend.
Please, let the games stop. Guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R