Embattled is a thematically dense family drama film based in the world of MMA, focusing on an abusive father-son dynamic.
Cash Boykins (Stephen Dorff) is at the top of the Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) world; a multiple world champion, swimming in money, his hard-partying ways and lavish-living see him as a role model for his teenage son, Jett (Darren Mann). On the other hand, Jett is a humble son, trying to follow in his father’s footsteps while being the man of his single-parent household and taking care of his mentally challenged brother, Quinn (Colin McKenna).
Cash and Jett’s personalities ultimately clash, and they come to face each other in the MMA cage. However, there’s more to this father-son rivalry. Jett is traumatised by his father’s domestic abuse of his mother and brother some twelve years ago and seeks retribution. The pair face off in what is a battle of honour and righting wrongs for Jett and a payday for the aptly named Cash.
Stephen Dorff is excellent as the fast-talking, arrogant king of the MMA world, making for a fantastic villain. People tend to love these types of flashy sports stars, however, there’s little to like in Dorff’s character. Sure, he has money, fame, power, women, and celebrity status, but he’s an abuser in the end. There’s little to no redeeming qualities for the character, and while it’s suggested that Cash was also raised by an abusive father, it’s only glossed over, so we aren’t given much of a chance to empathise with him.
Embattled is all about Jett’s story and his struggles with navigating teenage life while carrying the responsibility of taking care of his younger brother. At the same time, his mother, Susan (Elizabeth Reaser), Cash’s ex-wife, works to provide for them. When things come to a boiling point between Jett and Cash, it’s a no-brainer for Jett to step into the cage and fight his father. Darren Mann holds his own as the film’s young protagonist but still has a ways to go before hitting leading-man status. Thankfully, he’s in good company with the seasoned vet Stephen Dorff.
Director Nick Sarkisov does an excellent job balancing the film’s themes, making for some emotionally investing viewing. The dynamic between an abusive father and a loving son is tactfully explored as we see Jett follow in his father’s footsteps, with multiple value systems to guide him. Will he succumb to the bottle and live a bitter life filled with violence in and out of the cage, with money, fame and glory, or take responsibility and care for his family like his father never did? This is but one of many questions the narrative asks of Jett, and we can connect to him through these challenges.
Despite having these resonant themes with some exciting, if not somewhat jarring action scenes, the film tends to drag at times. These moments border on melodrama and, along with some questionable dialogue, detract from the narrative’s emotional weight, pulling the audience out of the film. Furthermore, there are some TV-movie vibes in parts of this film that cheapen the viewing experience. Nevertheless, Embattled is a thoroughly enjoyable, family drama film.
Stephen Dorff looked to MMA superstar Conor McGregor and boxing legend Floyd Mayweather for inspiration on his character.