‘Embattled’: Stephen Dorff Delivers a Furiously Brilliant Punch of a Role in MMA Drama

Embattled” is yet another drama about tortured souls who live by the code of their sport. Combat sports in particular have a way of making it easier to express the rages inside perturbed lives. Yet this film is unique in how it channels so much disturbing intensity through one performance. Stephen Dorff transforms into a toxic powerhouse, rampaging through the screen like a combination of MMA champion and Donald Trump. Director Nick Sarkisov intelligently takes Dorff’s energy and some of the familiar elements of a boxing movie to evoke a rather engaging Greek tragedy. Instead of eloquent language characters engage in a bloody war of body blows.

“I have a bit of a background in martial arts and boxing and my producers handed me the script and asked me if I would give it a read,” Sarkisov told Entertainment Voice. “It was an early draft and I completely fell in love with it.” The screenplay is by David McKenna, long known for his stories about violent lives caught in downward spirals like “American History X” and Larry Clark’s “Bully.” In “Embattled” he creates one of his most memorable characters in years. Cash (Dorff) is a World Champion MMA fighter who lives in lavish wealth while snarling hyper-testosterone macho slogans, many tinged with overt racism. Cash also has a family he left behind. High schooler Jett (Darren Mann) is Cash’s oldest and helps his mother, Susan (Elizabeth Reaser), take care of his brother Quinn (Colin McKenna), who has Williams Syndrome. It was because of Quinn’s condition that Cash had left. But now Jett is beginning to get serious about his own skills as a fighter. Grades and school are almost an afterthought. Part of Cash can’t resist giving his son a shot, but it comes with the price of piercingly hurtful memories and Cash’s own selfish demons.

“Embattled” defines the idea of a muscular film in its hyperactive editing and rugged casting. Sarkisov directs with a journalist’s knowledge of the MMA world, from the decadent mansion parties to how inside the cage, bones can easily break and a gashed face comes with the job. Propelling the narrative is Dorff, who seems fueled by nothing other than ego and wealth. Any man who can’t fight is worthless and he may show more slight affection towards his new, younger wife, who is herself baffled over why it’s hard for him to love Jett. He spits cruel put downs while flashing gold-capped teeth. Dorff the actor as we know him completely disappears. “That’s the point, you don’t want to like him,” said Sarkisov. “We were thinking of who could play Cash and someone said, ‘why don’t you have Stephen Dorff look at it?’ And to be honest I never thought of Stephen for this part but I’ve always been a huge admirer because he disappears in his roles. He read it and loved it. He became so obsessed with his character. He would text me every two or three days with how he should look or talk. It was Stephen’s idea to give Cash gold teeth. He also became obsessed with getting into great shape. He worked his ass off! Then we put him and Darren in training camp, at SBG in Birmingham, an amazing MMA gym.”

If the story were just about Cash being a big-talking, obnoxious fighter, then the film would just be an exercise in good acting. But the narrative about Jett and the way Cash abandoned his family out of sheer cruelty lends the movie a special kind of pathos. Cash ran away from his responsibilities, but his heart knows Jett carries his genes. He just can’t run away from his terrible faults. Cash trains Jett but is merciless with Susan. The big fighter has the decency to battle his bosses to provide better benefits for fighters, but he can barely look at Quinn, who he sees as a broken mistake. “Those larger than life characters, those egomaniacs, they’re interesting and charismatic, and draw you in and then they hurt you or hurt people around you,” said Sarkisov. “To me it’s about the way Jett deals with it in the movie. He forges his own path and tries to leave behind what this guy has done. I don’t think you can fix a guy like Cash or that it’s your responsibility. Your first responsibility is to yourself.”

Jett is eventually forced to make the ultimate decision. When video of one of Cash’s outbursts goes viral, large sums are offered by broadcasters to do a Pay-Per-View fight between Cash and Jett. The caged ring suddenly becomes a battleground for both of them to let out all their pent up feelings. Sarkisov films with a sense of almost MMA ballet in the way he captures a punch, a kick, or slows down the image for a body slam. It’s still visceral all the way through, with plenty of deep cuts and arms nearly getting snapped, and Dorff descends further into the mindset of a rampaging ego with fists. “Embattled” takes on the form of an epic. “The hardest and most important part about shooting this kind of action is getting the right people on your team,” said Sarkisov. “I was really lucky to work with Don Lee, our stunt coordinator and Lee Chang, our fight choreographer. They also understand how the action should help tell the story. Those guys get it.”

The climactic fight in “Embattled” raises the stakes to a degree that goes beyond money. It’s a father versus his son and the emotional toll could be devastating. Above the writing and stylish directing, however, what will linger in the memory is Dorff as a terrifying mirror image of the worst in us. And despite feeling the adrenaline rush of crafting this furious tale with a worthy cast, Sarkisov rarely felt tempted to step back into the ring. “I mean, when those guys like Stephen do it, it looks so sexy that it’s definitely tempting,” said Sarkisov. “But being on set I had enough on my plate already! But I did start training again after finishing the movie. My passion was reignited.”

Embattled” releases Nov. 20 on VOD and in select cities.