Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) has been all the rage since its modernized inception at the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993. The concept, which involves a combination of striking arts (i.e. tae kwon do, Muay Thai kickboxing) and grappling arts (i.e. Jiu-jitsu, Judo), has received its share of fans and its share of detractors. Popular outlets such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), StrikeForce, and Tapout all have popularized the MMA craze.
The concept has transpired over the years in cinema from tournament films such as 1987’s BLOODSPORT (where each fighter represented a different art) to a more fluid and combined form of combat. In the recent years, mixed martial arts have made their way in the form of cinematic combat in both Hollywood and Asia. While MMA cinema has had its share of hits and misses, it is the same as to all cinematic forms of stage combat: camera angles, editing techniques, and execution of techniques that show whether MMA is a suitable form of combat to display on screen.
The following is a list of the author’s recommendations of seeing mixed martial arts in cinematic form. In some cases, the dramatic tension that leads to the action can be a big plus, while in other cases, action improves over drama. In some rare cases, a fluid combination of a well thought out storyline and action makes for a great film involving mixed martial arts action.
BLOODSPORT (Newt Arnold, 1987) – While the film doesn’t really display the mixed martial arts everyone knows today, it does hold some historical value as a tournament film where fighters use various forms of martial arts. The film stars Jean-Claude Van Damme as Frank Dux, an American GI who goes AWOL to compete in the Kumite, a martial arts tournament in Hong Kong. The various backgrounds of the competitors with the real Frank Dux’s fight choreography makes this truly worth watching. Styles include Muay Thai, monkey style kung fu, Sumo wrestling, kung fu, and Western boxing amongst others. The film spawned three sequels, all starring Daniel Bernhardt, and a remake is in the works from director Philip Noyce (SALT).
THE QUEST (Jean-Claude Van Damme, 1996) – Reuniting with Frank Dux, Jean-Claude Van Damme made his directorial debut with this tournament film that has a versatility of martial arts backgrounds combined with a storyline about a man’s search for perhaps redemption and honor in his life. While the story somewhat seemed blah, the action was a notch up from BLOODSPORT. Steven Lambert served as fight choreographer and styles included Five Animal Style kung fu, Capoeira, tae kwon do, karate, kung fu, and even wrestling at one point. Along with BLOODSPORT, this would be a precursor to perhaps today’s MMA tournament films on the screen.
S.P.L. (Wilson Yip, 2005) – While the film overall has a storyline involving Hong Kong police and the Triads, it is the action choreography of lead actor Donnie Yen that stands out. After a long career of using traditional, kickboxing, and wire enhancements, Yen begins to utilize the mixed martial arts style in his choreography with this action film. In two fight sequences where he takes on action legend Sammo Hung, Yen uses a combination of his trademark kicking skills and in a surprise move, the art of grappling. Yen’s MMA style would help win him the Best Fight Choreography Award at the 2006 Hong Kong Film Awards.
UNDISPUTED II: LAST MAN STANDING (Isaac Florentine, 2006) – When martial artist and director Isaac Florentine took over directing duties on the second installment of the 2002 prison boxing film, he decided to make it a martial arts action film. The film revolves around former boxing champion George “Iceman” Chambers, who is framed for drug possession in Russia. The plan was set up by Russian mob boss Gaga, who wants Chambers to take on the current prison champion, Yuri Boyka. Boyka is a mixed martial artist and after suffering a defeat by Boyka, Chambers learns he must adapt and learn MMA in order to take on Boyka in a rematch. The film stars Michael Jai White (replacing Ving Rhames, who played Chambers in the 2002 film) and Scott Adkins. Fight choreography by J.J. Perry showcased Adkins’ skills as a martial artist and grappler along with excellent cinematography by Ross Clarkson.
FLASH POINT (Wilson Yip, 2007) – Action star/fight choreographer Donnie Yen and director Wilson Yip re-team for this action adventure where a lone wolf cop takes on a Vietnamese gang led by three brothers. For the action, Yen uses the MMA style again, this time utilizing it more than he had with SPL. The MMA-filled finale, which pits Yen against Collin Chou, helped won Yen the Golden Horse Award for Best Action Choreography in 2007.
REDBELT (David Mamet, 2008) – Playwright/screenwriter David Mamet really stunned the fans of cinema when he wrote and directed a mixed martial arts film. In this film, Brazilian Jiujitsu teacher Mike Terry is struggling making ends meet. He is constantly offered to compete by his brother-in-law but refuses based on his own principles. Despite getting a job as a trainer and fight choreographer for a movie, circumstances lead to Terry having no other choice but to compete. The film stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tim Allen, and Alice Braga. While the action seems somewhat light compared to other films, the dramatic tension that leads up to the action heavily makes up as the film is quite underrated.
NEVER BACK DOWN (Jeff Wadlow, 2008) – This millennium’s version of the classic KARATE KID (not to be confused with the 2010 reboot) revolves around Jake Tyler, a teen with anger issues who moves with his family to Orlando. When he is coerced into a fight at a house party, he is beaten by resident rich boy/MMA fighter Ryan McCarthy. When Jake’s new friend Max suggests he train in MMA, he is introduced to Jean Roqua, who has secrets of his own. This is best described as one of those films that will take more than one viewing to eventually appreciate. Sean Faris, having no prior martial arts experience, does well for his first action film with Cam Gigandet doing well as rich boy Ryan. As for the role of the teacher, Djimon Hounsou seemed tailor made for the role. Fight choreography was supplied by Damon Caro and Jonathan Eusebio of the 87Eleven Team.
BLOOD AND BONE (Ben Ramsey, 2009) – Michael Jai White stars in this really good action film, where he plays Isaiah Bone, an ex-con who enters an underground fight ring as part of a promise to a friend. White really gets to shine here in the martial arts department as he takes on various fighters, from MMA fighter Bob Sapp to Xtreme martial arts expert Matt Mullins. There are also cameo appearances from MMA fighters Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson and Gina Carano. UNDISPUTED II fight choreographer J.J. Perry served as the film’s stunt coordinator.
UNDISPUTED III: REDEMPTION (2010) – British martial arts ace Scott Adkins reprises his role from the second film as Yuri Boyka. Now a broken fighter, he overcomes his obstacles to compete in a tournament where the winner gains his freedom and the losers get another brand of punishment. The film was hailed by fans as truly one of the best martial arts films of the new millennium, all in part to the stellar cast and the fight choreography, this time handled by Larnell Stovall. Stovall made effective use of the fighters’ abilities and combined their various styles with MMA.
NEVER BACK DOWN 2: THE BEATDOWN (Michael Jai White, 2011) – Three years after NBD, skeptics were worried about the sequel. That is, until the name Michael Jai White came on board, not only as the new “teacher” but he would make his directorial debut. The story revolves around four fighters with different backstories and issues who train under White’s former MMA champion to compete in a tournament called The Beatdown. The film is related to the original as supporting actor Evan Peters returns as Max Cooperman, who now runs the Beatdown and advises the fighters to train with White’s character. Larnell Stovall once again handled fight choreography duties, showcasing not only White, but those of the young cast of fighters (Dean Geyer, Scottie Epstein, Alex Meraz, and Todd Duffee). This is truly the rarity that a sequel has bested its predecessor.
Remember, these films are slowly based on the recommendations of the author. Please show courtesy and respect. Everyone has their opinions, but if one should comment, please do so in a civil manner.
mixed martial arts