THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"THE FIGHT WITHIN"
Is there a Venn diagram of people who want to see an earnest Christian-themed movie and a hardcore mixed martial arts drama? I'm guessing the overlap there would be pretty minimal. And yet, here's The Fight Within, a film that combines rampant sermonizing with muscular dudes beating the crap out of each other. It's every bit as bizarre as it sounds.
John Major Davis plays Logan Chandler, a college student who cut short a promising MMA career after the abrupt death of his former-champion father. His brother Mason (Mike H. Taylor) has taken over their dad's gym, which is struggling financially. The key to saving it is to have Logan fight his arch-nemesis, Hayden Dressler (Matt Leddo), a perpetually-sneering jerk who lives to antagonize people he doesn't like. (He's such a one-dimensional stereotype ripped out of an '80s movie that it's a wonder he wasn't played by William Zabka.) Logan refuses to fight, especially after meeting Emma (Lelia Symington), a devout Christian with plans to do missionary work in Africa. She helps him find Jesus and clear out some of his anger. Hayden, however, is determined to get Logan back in the ring, come hell or high water.
Like a lot of faith-based films, The Fight Within screeches its plot to a dead halt in order to deliver a message of faith. The first half-hour sets up the rivalry between Logan and Hayden, but once Emma enters the picture, she and her friends start delivering religious soliloquies that help him see the light. Following an endless montage of the couple frolicking on a lake, there's a scene where Logan accompanies Emma to church and is converted after hearing what is literally the most generic sermon you can imaging a screenwriter concocting. The final half-hour goes back to MMA action, focusing on Logan training and (this is not a spoiler) fighting Hayden. Director Michael William Gordon and writer Jim Davis never find a way to meld their two subjects together in a smooth manner.
While the movie's intent is admirable, the execution is marred by a number of other things, too. The characters are all paper-thin and, in some cases, borderline offensive. For instance, there is exactly one prominent African-American, and he's a homeless gentleman who fulfills the “magical Negro” role. One also has to question the seeming hypocrisy of the story's mentality. The Fight Within talks repeatedly about how God loves everyone, then ends with the not-so-subtle suggestion that He really wants Logan to give Hayden a whupping. Is Hayden not loved or redeemable because he's so mean?
The performances are uniformly bland, with a couple supporting actors coming off as downright amateurish. An actor playing one of Emma's friends appears to have memorized the dialogue without bothering to practice things like naturalistic inflection. The plot points are just as dull and predictable. If you don't know everything that's going to happen within the first ten minutes, you've never seen a movie before. There's no legitimate drama or suspense when every single development is so painfully obvious.
The only thing The Fight Within gets right is the fighting. The actors reportedly trained for months to prepare, and it shows. MMA scenes are often shot in long takes so we can see no stunt doubles were used. That's impressive. Everything else is by-the-numbers. The movie certainly has a respectable message. Pairing it with the unlikely subject of mixed martial arts isn't enough, though. The best faith-based films bring their messages alive with compelling stories, identifiable characters, and at least a modicum of subtlety. The Fight Within blunts its message by wrapping it in cliches and then pummeling you with it.
( 1/2 out of four)
The Fight Within is rated PG-13 for some sports violence and brief menace. The running time is 1 hour and 28 minutes.
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