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Art of Submission

aka The Cage Fighter: Pride vs Honour; The Red Canvas; Submission

D: Kenneth Chamitoff, Adam Boster / 102m

Cast: Ving Rhames, Ernie Reyes Jr, John Savage, George Takei, Sara Downing, Ernie Reyes Sr, Maria Conchita Alonso, Ken Takemoto, Gray Maynard, Frank Shamrock

Primarily funded by martial arts school owners and their students, Art of Submission aims to show the other side of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), namely the dedication and the respect that fighters have for the sport and for each other.  On that level it succeeds, but two main creative decisions undermine the message the movie wants to make.

The story centres around Johnny (Reyes Jr).  He’s a hothead who wants to get ahead in MMA but without first paying his dues or according the people around him the respect they deserve, including his father (Reyes Sr).  His trainer, Gene (Rhames) acknowledges his talent but insists he works his way up to fighting in a paying match.  Johnny has money problems and tries a variety of schemes to solve them without success.  When he and Gene’s daughter, Julia (Downing) have a child together, he tries to earn some easy money and winds up in jail.

At this point it’s all been so far, so predictable.  Rhames does his gruff mentor routine, Reyes Jr looks slightly weird with long straggly hair, the supporting cast come and go in various subplots, and the few fight sequences are edited to within an inch of the fighters’ trunks.  Family loyalties are strained, Reyes Jr pouts a lot, steroids are used, and prison awaits, though not in the way Johnny expects (he’s been offered a job as a prison guard more than once).  With Johnny inside, Art of Submission becomes a different movie altogether.

Art of Submission - scene

Coincidence and contrivance come thick and fast from this point on as Johnny meets Warden Rask (Savage).  Rask sees Johnny’s potential and arranges to have him released to take part in an MMA tournament organised by Krang (Takei).  It turns out Krang knew Rask – and Gene – during Vietnam, and… you know what, watch the movie and find out; it’s far too convoluted to recount here.  This narrative overkill hurts the movie from here until the end, and while it’s not confusing as such, it does lead to there being too many scenes that fail to advance the plot, and in turn, reduce the amount of time that could have been spent on the qualifying rounds and the tournament final.  Let’s just say that Krang is the villain of the piece, performance-enhancing drugs are involved, the various subplots are tidied up neatly, and the outcome of the final is never in doubt for a moment.

As well as the convoluted plotting, the other decision the filmmakers made that hurts the movie is with the editing.  At one point, Johnny’s father ends up in hospital in a coma; the sequences that follow are a badly stitched together montage that merge in and out of each other, stopping the viewer from making complete sense of what’s happening.  The dialogue in these sequences is also overwhelmed by the score, making it even more difficult to work out what’s going on (though to be fair, the copy of the movie I saw may have been the problem).  Elsewhere, the editing appears random, with shots chosen not so much for their relevance to the action as for their framing, and to show off the various camera angles that mire the look of the movie.  All in all, the last half hour seems to have been edited by someone with ADHD (my apologies to co-editors Boster and Jamie Mitchell if either one of them actually has this condition).

All of which leaves the fight scenes.  Choreographed by Reyes Sr, these are in keeping with regular MMA bouts: short, brutal bursts of physical punishment that leave you wondering how these guys stay upright for as long as they do.  What makes the bouts even more impressive is the participation of real MMA fighters (Maynard, Shamrock, ‘Crazy’ Bob Cook, Kim Do Nguyen et al).  Knowing that the moves and the blows are real makes all the difference.  (However, the manic editing still makes it look like the bouts were shot from over thirty different camera angles and in four second bursts.)

Art of Submission isn’t the best MMA movie in the world, but the level of behind-the-scenes authenticity does keep it from being a complete letdown.  The cast do their best with a script that resorts to muddled cliché more often than not, and the direction by Chamitoff and Boster is serviceable if uninspired.  Rhames coasts, Reyes Jr tries too hard, but the bouts save the day.

Rating: 5/10 – an uneven attempt at promoting MMA despite the involvement of several well-known participants, and not helped by crudely drawn characters; fitfully absorbing, but overall, one for the fans.

Originally posted on thedullwoodexperiment website.