AMERICAN FIGHTER is not an action film per se but rather a sports drama, think more along the lines of ‘BEST OF THE BEST’ (1989), ‘BLOODSPORT’ (1988) or even ‘ROCKY’ (1976); and though it lacks the same pedigree as those classics, there is still much to like about this film by Director Shaun Paul Piccinino. The clinch here (pun intended) is that the protagonist is not an all American boy-next-door, but rather that of an Iranian refugee seeking his own version of the fabled ‘American dream.’ Yet it eludes him due to his ethnicity, with the 80s setting besieged by conflict in an era of the Iranian hostage crisis and the like.
High stakes are immediately established for Ali Jahani (George Kosturos) as he enters himself into underground fighting tournaments in order to raise money to free his mother from Tehran, after his Father (Tony Panterra) is killed by militants.
Piccinino’s decision to alter the setting establishes something more unique, rather than having adopt a contemporary MMA setting which still saturates much of the market. It is a daring choice, which pays off and although the protagonist George Kosturos certainly lacks compelling charisma, it is those around him that help elevate his performance. Drawing some physical comparisons to Hollywood A-listers like Dev Patel (who is starring in the anticipated ‘THE GREEN KNIGHT’) or Alex Wolff in Ari Aster’’s excellent ‘HEREDITARY’ (2018); Kosturos lacks their more skilled pedigree but still manages to hold his own as the determined Ali. Undoubtedly Kosturos does possess the requisite physique and skills as a film fighter, but his acting is too melodramatic and ropey in places. Still, with a strong supporting cast he gradually becomes a likeable protagonist who works closely with Mr V. (Parviz Sayyad), a migration negotiator who is arranging for the escape of Ali’s mother (Salome Azizi) from their war torn country.
Drenched in a too subtle 80s excess, American Fighter tells the story of Ali, the aforementioned refugee whose combat expertise in wrestling leads him into underground fighting tournaments pitting him against a range of opponents. Whilst his ongoing victories lead to greater pay outs, he battles the racism of the era whilst trying to save his sick mother. Though an underdog story, it is perhaps a failure of the script itself giving little for the actors to work with, as much of the racism directed towards the hero seems heavily forced – with much of the antagonists appearing like caricatures. Evidently, his desire to overcome his opponents reflects his need to prove himself amongst his peers and assert physical dominance to those that are unfairly victimizing him.
Though possessing some slick camera work, there is almost a docu-drama quality to the movie, as the choreography is neither intricate nor graceful but rather having the focus on realistic brutality. Bathed in a darker hue, the fights adopt a somewhat horror feel, where the intensity is dialed up and the battled, mano-a-mano are true to form, an animalistic violent display. Ironically if this movie was release in the pre-UFC era, it would have established a cult following however given the popularity of MMA these days there isn’t necessarily anything that viewers would see as particularly fresh or ground breaking. And yet the clear intention to adopt a gritty and downbeat setting creates a fearsome sense of anticipation leading up to the conflict and intensifying during each battle. Respite from the violent machismo comes courtesy of Ali’s all-American girlfriend Heidi (Allison Page), as well as his friendship with his fellow fighter Ryan (Bryan Craig) with each serving as the clichéd romance and the introspective sounding board, respectively. In many ways, Bryan Craig’s supporting character outshines the otherwise one dimensional Kosturos, with Craig showing more depth in a sympathetic yet also cheerful best friend. His obsession with Star Wars, served not only as a way of enforcing the era in which this movie was set but also allowing some comedic moments that are delivered in a genuine way.
Ali’s eventual mentor in Duke is played by Sean Patrick Flannery, an actor with a diverse career in both movies and television. Although Duke is certainly no Mr Miyagi (Pat Morita) from KARATE KID (1984) or Mickey (Burgess Meredith) from ROCKY (1976), he manages to portray a wise yet troubled mentor that provides enough care and balance to Ali affording him the skillsets required to overcome each opponent. Duke carries his own emotional baggage providing added layers that the younger Ali lacks, and it does work for the most part. There is further believability in Duke’s capability with Flannery also possessing a black belt in Brazilian Jujitsu, so much of the grappling he demonstrates is clearly based on his own experience.
Tommy Flanagan does a passable job at portraying the shady fight promoter McClellan, although suitably villainous his performance does veer into kitsch with him coming off as a third rate Nick Nolte or Gary Busey. Flanagan has featured in various television series such as ‘SONS OF ANARCHY’, ‘GOTHAM’, ‘WU ASSASSINS’ and ‘WESTWORLD’ and in American Fighter is predictably unlikable but far too one dimensional to truly despise as any manipulative villain should be. His performance is a little dialed in, but not forgettable within the context of the story.
One of the standout performances is that of Australian bodybuilding champion turned actor Guy Grundy, who is one of the few bodybuilders from down under to truly succeed on the silver screen. Over the years Guy has traded his handsome clean cut bodybuilding look and appearing more as a more beefy anti-hero or villain in a range of projects in movies and television. Boasting bigger dimensions, Guy really manages throw strikes with as much speed as ferocity, with his ability to ‘sell’ as the brawler Tank, making him ideal for more action films, or even a new addition of a heel (ie wrestling villain) in NJPW or AEW’s pro-wrestling roster. Personally speaking I have known Guy for since 2011, having interviewed him in magazines such as Australian IRONMAN and RAW Muscle, and hence it was satisfying to see him not only in the movie but also adorned on the actual movie poster and associated press materials. Given Guy’s pedigree and look, it would have been more pertinent to have him as the big bad or final boss for Ali to battle; but perhaps Piccinino wanted to avoid comparisons to Balboa vs Drago, as Grundy would certainly be positioned more as a physically domineering opponent like the Russian Boxer.
Suprisingly, Ali’s last opponent Bas (Eddie Davenport) is a cookie cutter kickboxer champion, who is too much of a one dimensional villain that serves as the final obstacle serving as redemption. The final bout is largely unremarkable, with only a few of Duke’s signature moves coming into Ali’s enhanced in ring abilities. Being somewhat overly formulaic to a fault, the film’s conclusion is rushed though in parts is still enjoyable in the lead up to Ali’s lukewarm final battle.
Touted as being ‘Based on a true story’, American Fighter happens to be a fictional sequel to ‘AMERICAN WRESTLER’ (2016) – whilst American Fighter’s Ali Jahani is actually inspired by the life of Ali Afshar, who produced this 2019 sequel. Reportedly, the real Ali was indeed an Iranian immigrant to America who established himself as an American wrestling champion.
Undoubtedly, Director Shaun Paul Piccinino demonstrates enough capability to weave a simple story which delivers on brutality as much as clear motivation. American Fighter serves as a clear example of Piccinino’s fight background with this Director possessing black belts in Shorin Ryu Karate and Pyong An Do Wan Kung Fu. His framing of shots in American Fighter, demonstrate that unique sense of action, being up close and personal as his players enact shot for shots as blood spills onto the make shift arenas.
It is perhaps laced with irony that the bloodshed that Ali chooses to partake in, is that which will rescue his mother from violence. Though that said, one would need to suspend belief, knowing that a young adult would be besting some older and more seasoned brawlers within the confines of an unregulated, Vale Tudo style contest.
At its worst AMERICAN FIGHTER is very predictable and derivative, yet at its best American Fighter may indeed win you over with its throwback to the underdog story so prevalent in the aforementioned films that had inspired it.
AMERICAN FIGHTER will release in select U.S. theaters and everywhere movies can be rented on May 21, and on Blu-ray and DVD May 25.
Vance Ang has primarily been professionally published in bodybuilding and fitness since 2005, having written extensively for hardcopy publications such as Australian IRONMAN and FLEX; but also for e-publications such as RAW Muscle and more recently the media platform, The Evolution of Bodybuilding. He is a Melbourne based policy and strategy consultant currently undertaking his post graduate study in Law. In addition to bodybuilding, conservative politics and Savate (French Kickboxing), he has long been a fan of movies and cinema of all genres – subsequently prompting an interest in modern story telling, that being script writing. He is in the process of writing his first horror novel ‘Providence’