There's no greater battle than the battle for your life.
The 'forced to fight' concept is a staple of cheap, direct-to-video action movies. It also happens to be one of my favourite sub-genres of bad-action, so that's all right by me. I was definitely not on the lookout for this title when I spotted it on the shelves in my local DVD emporium. Samuel L. Jackson in a fight to the death movie, produced by Stage 6 films? I had not realised Sam was that badly in need of a paycheck; that or he just wanted to let his hair down (metaphorically of course, as he is quite obviously bald) and do a quick three day shoot for a laugh. Throw in the model from the Twilight films and we have ourselves a movie.
Kellan Lutz (Twilight as Emmett Cullen, and Dean Russell in the recent Nightmare on Elm Street reboot) is David Lord (great name), a fireman with a pregnant wife. Out driving they hit another car and his wife is killed. Drowning his sorrows in a Mexican bar, Lord gets propositioned by a beautiful girl Milla (Katia Winter). After going back to his room and getting naked, she fires on him with a taser and Lord is quickly packed up in a bag by hired goons and taken away.
Lord wakes in a dark room in an unknown location. He soon is informed that he is to be a fighter in a series of underground arena matches to the death. He of course initially resists, but after much torture and brainwashing and blackmailing, he begins to play ball - killing opponents in front of the camera for the viewers at home, who are, in this instance, pay per view Internet viewers. This is Deathgames, a brutal series of fights run by ringleader Logan (Samuel L Jackson) and enforced by the mean fist of Kaden (Johnny Messner).
Yes yes yes, you've ALL seen this a million times before. From the B-lows of Ring of Steel, Bloodfist and No Exit, to the B-highs of Undisputed and The Running Man, the forced-to-fight film is the most notorious cookie-cutter action film there is. Barely anything distinguishes these films apart from their leading roles.
The template goes: our hero is captured, beaten and made to battle other unwilling combatants (and some 'house heroes' as well), usually with some form of collateral held as blackmail. Our hero eventually agrees to voluntarily fight if his conditions are met, and he will also threaten to kill the ringleader. He makes it through to the final battle and is offered a pardon if he works for the ringleader as the new house champion. He disagrees and kills the ringleader in the most painful way possible. There will be a training montage in there somewhere too. That's the description for almost any 'forced to fight' film, and is certainly the description of Arena. I will say that there is a nice twist at the end that stands Arena apart from similar films, so you have something unique there at least.
Samuel Jackson was chewing the scenery so much in this film that he left his teeth marks on the set. I'm not kidding, I've never seen him do anything like this before. In most scenes he was sat in his throne with his two Asian computer technician cross personal strippers patting his brow and giving him a striptease, spouting lines like "What we have here is a failure to communicate! I've always wanted to say that line!" The surrounding decor switches from steel, burlesque and gothic and all Sam needed was a white cat on his lap. He's very similar to The Running Man's bad guy Killian who barks commands to his computer nerd girls to roll in 3, 2, 1 and Action. Also similar to Killian is his repentance in the final scenes; "I just give the punters what they want!"
The punters are the only thing that let this film down, and also show it's low budget. Whilst the Running Man had a huge studio audience and thousands of people on the street betting on the outcomes, Arena appears to have only two paying members: a bunch of College frat kids holding perpetual drinking parties, and a Chinese office worker at his desk sneaking a view at the Deathgames when he is supposed to be working. It's the kids that suck, really. Maybe I just hate college jocks, I don't really know, but any scene with them shouting "NO WAY BRO HE DID NOT JUST DO THAT!!" at their computer screens while the same blonde bimbos cower from the gore really pissed me off.
Speaking of gore there is plenty of that here. That's the best thing about DTV if you like that kind of thing; it's no holds barred on the blood and dismemberment. There's at least three decapitations in the film and plenty of swordplay and broken bones. Lord is cut to smithereens and coated in blood after every match, particularly the second-last fight with an escaped and deranged convict. The Arena sets themselves are intentional CG; the fighters are put in a green-screen room and in a scene straight out of the Matrix, the room itself is replaced with anything from a Shaolin temple to a junkyard. Very much akin to a holodeck.
Johnny Messner (Anacondas, Wrong Turn at Tahoe) is pretty decent as the right-hand-man to Jackson. He's well versed in forced-to-fight films, with Ring of Death under his belt and the hilarious looking Kill 'Em All coming later this year. He spends most of the film wearing a black cap as the Executioner. Katia Winter's Milla is gorgeous and we do get a full frontal scene - one for the young males in the audience! Her character actually progresses a little as she begins to fall for Lord when tending to his post-battle wounds.
This is a solid rental at the very least. If you are a consistent fan of 'forced to fight' films I'd just go out and add this to your collection. Sam Jackson is hilarious and the fights themselves are solid, even if they are a little too MTV-edited in parts. Good stuff.
Unsurprisingly, this DVD sports a sharp and detailed picture and a strong soundtracks. There's plenty of music during the fights that make your speakers earn their keep. Filmed in scope, perhaps the producers were hoping for a theatrical release. Runtime 94 minutes.
Locally purchased DVD.