It can be exceptionally difficult to judge a filmmaker’s intent. What viewers see is not intent, but the result of that intent. This result may be exactly what the filmmaker wanted to offer up, or it may be something wholly different. There are moments where we can guess, but we must tread lightly.
For instance, writer-director Jesse Quinones’ new movie, “Cagefighter,” might have the intent of providing the audience with a gripping story of one MMA fighter who gets too big for his britches and, once more, has to find and summon the courage to win from deep within. The goal here then might be for the audience to laugh and cry and sit on the edge of their seat as they watch the pounding this man takes in and out of the ring.
That doesn’t sound too far-fetched for the intent. Still, whatever the truth of the intent, the results are a dime-a-dozen “Rocky” franchise rip-off with humdrum fight sequences and no insight into the lead character. The movie does at least have enough sense to know that they’re taking from “Rocky” and paraphrase a couple lines to let the audience know they know, but it’s not enough.
There is, as I’ve written before, absolutely nothing wrong with telling a new version of a story we already know, but it has to be well told, it has to offer a slightly different take or give more insight or… something. “Cagefighter” doesn’t do that. It sticks with a completely surface-level view of the tale, and the surface doesn’t even always make complete sense.
Alex Montagnani stars here as our MMA champ turned chump turned ???? (this would be a spoiler… maybe), Reiss Gibbons. His main physical opponent is Randy Stone (Jonathan Good, aka AEW wrestler Jon Moxley), a professional wrestler turned MMA fighter… at least turned MMA fighter in order to fight Reiss. As for Reiss’ actual main opponent, that’s entirely mental.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but as Reiss discovers, he’s been champ too long, he’s taken it for granted, he’s lost the eye of the tiger. When things go bad for him, they go real bad and include a loss of all his money and even a need to sell his championship belt. The one thing he still has in his life is his wife, Ellie (Georgia Bradner), and their baby.
That sale of the championship belt is just one of those things which doesn’t make a ton of sense in the film. There is no reason offered for us to believe that this sale isn’t something which Reiss is entitled to do, but it takes place as some sort of nighttime parking lot drug deal, sketchy in the extreme. Why is this how it goes down? There is no explanation whatsoever, one can’t even guess at intent with anything beyond “Reiss is embarrassed his life has come to this,” but even that answer isn’t satisfying.
There is a different moment in the film where Quinones and cinematographer Mark Dobrescu choose to employ a camera spinning around Reiss’s agent, Reggie (Elijah Baker), and the head of the MMA league, Max (Gina Gershon), as the two talk inside an arena. It is a series of a camera shots cutting back and forth between the characters as the cameras continually spin, and the result is not a sense of awe or wonder at this location the two are trying to fill with Reiss’s fight, but rather bewilderment at why the camera is moving so fast and why they keep cutting. The effect is to actively remove the audience from the situation rather than make us more invested or in any way awed. The fights themselves are more satisfying to watch but, perhaps, like a real sporting event, the best moments are sometimes obscured.
Narratively, we are told over and over again about how sad Reiss is about his losses. We get to see that sadness. What never happens though is the formation of a bond between protagonist and audience. The sale of the belt is momentous and crushing, we should feel the weight of it. Instead, we wonder why it’s being done as a drug deal. The fight being discussed between Max and Reggie is huge and we should feel just how important it is, but the camera actively removes us from that feeling.
Of course, I’ve again placed some notions of intent, however minor, in that last paragraph, haven’t I? There is a fine line between the knowable and the not and I think I have indeed kept my own advice and tread lightly. I could be wrong and may have misidentified the problem, but the fact would remain that a problem exists.
As for this movie. We know that, in general, the Rocky story works on some level, they wouldn’t have made so many movies otherwise. This version of it however, with it starting somewhere in the middle of the “Rocky” franchise, doesn’t. From a surface level examination of the issues Reiss faces to flat line readings to predictable dialogue and outcomes, “Cagefighter” may have taken a shot at the king, but it missed.
photo credit: Screen Media Films