Movie review: The worlds of mixed martial arts and pro wrestling make for a good match in ‘Cagefighter’
Every filmmaker wants their movie to succeed, to earn its money back and turn a profit. A smart way to do that is to make it attractive to as many segments of its potential audience as possible. Going by that logic, “Cagefighter” should do quite well. It’s aimed at fans of mixed martial arts (MMA), professional wrestling, underdog stories and surprisingly good acting (where it might not have been expected). And it works on all levels.
It’s a rise-fall-rise tale of MMA Light Heavyweight World Champion Reiss Gibbons (real-life MMA multi-time champ Alex Montagnani), a rough-and-tumble - and very skilled - British brawler, who’s also a nice fellow. The film’s opening fight, set in an MMA steel cage, is a fierce one, replete with punches and kicks, blood and bruises and it gives Reiss his fifth championship win.
In his mid-30’s and riding high on his achievements, he ponders his next move: Movies? Endorsements? Settling down to be a dad with his wife Ellie? More fights?
But the choice isn’t his to make. His boss at the Legends MMA organization is Max Black (Gina Gershon), a woman with dollar signs in her eyes and a talent for finding ways to fill arenas with fans. She wants Reiss to go for a sixth title defense. And she wants his opponent to be eccentric and dangerous pro wrestling champ Randy Stone (Jonathan Good, who WWE fans know as Dean Ambrose, and in AEW as Jon Moxley).
“Not interested,” says Reiss to Max. “What’s he got to lose?” asks Max of Reiss’s loyal manager Reggie (Elijah Baker). “His dignity, his pride, his self-respect, and his fans,” says Reggie to Max. But it’s on.
And it’s right then, when it appears that “Cagefighter” is about to fall into a world of clichés, that writer-director Jess Quinones infuses it with some unanticipated creativity.
MMA radio show host Stephen Drake (Jay Reso, who wrestling fans know as Christian) unceremoniously announces that Randy Stone has no chance in hell against an MMA fighter. A documentary film-with-the-film gives some background on Reiss, shifts to the insanity practiced by Randy in an AEW ring, then adds in a few recognizable talking heads - real-life wrestlers Matt Hardy and Tommy Dreamer to extol the talents of Randy, and real-life MMA fighter Tommy Gunn to praise the skills of Reiss.
On fight night, it’s happy and confident Reiss against angry and confident Randy. Without spoiling too much, let it be said that things don’t go well for Reiss. The reason that’s not a major spoiler is that it triggers everything else that happens in the film. And I’m happy to report that everything else that happens is not at all what I expected would happen.
It starts out as a character study, but turns into a story of someone who is shattered by a turn of events, and desperately wants to redeem himself, but seems unable to make the right decisions about any of it. There’s an old adage about things getting worse before they get better and Reiss finds himself heading down a road of wrong turns.
There are plenty of highs and lows in his story, and when the action scenes are unleashed - beautifully choreographed and photographed in all of their brutality - fans of that sort of thing are going to be entranced. But the film also sets a high bar for strong acting. Both Alex Montagnani and Jonathan Good are bursting with charisma - and Good’s Dean Ambrose is one of the more memorable characters in recent WWE history. There’s also Gina Gershon who, once again, in what’s been a long career of terrific performances, shines.
When Reiss gets one last chance to prove himself, he declines. When his wife asks why, he admits it’s because he’s afraid. When she counters with, “But I believe in you,” I once again felt the icy fingers of cliché closing around me.
But the film wondrously avoids it, and then it’s fight night, and Randy is the animal and Reiss is the prey, and the fight is dramatic and ferocious. And there’s an ending that will please fans of both sports, and of underdog stories and good acting.
“Cagefighter” opens in selected theaters and On Demand on Oct. 9.
Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written and directed by Jesse Quinones
With Alex Montagnani, Gina Gershon, Jonathan Good, Jay Reso
Not rated (but should get an R for violence)