BORN A CHAMPION Review: To Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, With Love
Every fighter has a story to tell – each topped with reasons and events attributing why it is they do what they do. In the role that actor Sean Patrick Flanery portrays in director Alex Ranarivelo’s latest, Born A Champion, there’s a ton to explore here, and much more as the story progresses right down to midway in the end credits.
Born A Champion comes from a star and director pair who bring a clear and driven vision to the table, using all the necessary ingredients to craft together a gritty, entertaining MMA drama. It certainly helps that Flanery, who himself has been a purveyor of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu since 2001 and is now Gracie system black belt, co-wrote the pic with Ranarivelo.
It’s especially understandable for anyone who never knew this about Flanery (myself included until about 2018, to be perfectluly honest), particularly for fans of martial arts movies. Agreeably, it’s the kind of ambiguity that can bewilder anyone with some modicum of delight, even moreso since Flanery has aptly, to his own benefit, managed to avoid pigeonholing himself as an action star, which means a defining appeal toward a variety of prospective roles and productions.
It’s also indicative of someone who knows and understands the importance of creating a pure, authentic and compelling story with action to help intensify the terrain, as opposed to someone creating action for action’s sake. For this, it’s no stretch to assert just how essential it was to see a true, viable MMA movie focused on Jiu Jitsu compared to the miscarriage of fanservice that arose a few months ago.
Beginning in 1991, Ranarivelo’s Born A Champion is told from the perspective of documentary interviewee, Rosco (Maurice Compte) whose nickname, “Taco”, stems from the night he meets and ultimately befriends ex-soldier and one of the first American Brazilian Jiu Jitsu martial artists of his time, Mickey Kelley (Flanery), a good samaritan caught on video immobilizing a few undesirables harassing Rosco who happens to be working as a restaurant valet that evening. While telling Mickey’s story, Rosco alludes to what he bills as the actual “holy grail of MMA videos”, beginning with Mickey’s fortuitous flight to Dubai to teach a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu at the behest of a well-respected Sheik (Ali Afshar).
During the flight, he meets the lovely and beautiful Layla (Katrina Bowden), a paralegal volunteering to do modeling work for Dimitri (Costas Mandylor), a wealthy fur magnate plying his trade in the region. After a brief, intense scuffle of words and some swift, covert conflict resolution one evening, Dimitri’s true nature becomes clear to Mickey who manages to rescue her and have her sent back home to the U.S., where the two finally reunite a week later and resume a relationship that eventually blooms into marriage, and the start of a new life together.
One day, Mickey receives a call from Dubai with an offer to compete and bring his skills to the table in a small, unsanctioned tournament hosted by the Sheik. Mickey has never had the urge to compete up until this point, and so with a baby boy on the way and Layla’s reservations against him fighting notwithstanding, the prospects of earning an ample amount of cash, win or lose, is enough for the two to put aside their differences, alongside Mickey getting to showcase his skills before an audience.
With Rosco along for the trip, the trio arrive to Dubai where it just so happens that the aforementioned Dimitri has a stake in the tournament as well with top contender Marco Blaine (Edson Barboza), and it’s not too long before Mickey gets to showcase what he can do with impeccability; The very crux of Mickey’s MMA training is his devout adherence to honor – training only to end physical altercations as opposed to starting them. Inclusive in this school of thought is the mutual respect opponents are meant to share with each other in the ring, whether through a clap of hands or a study handshake. Mickey is just that kind of a fighter, and that’s exactly how he’s led his life up to then, reaching out to shake hands as he’s called to center-ring to face Marco only to get ambushed with a flying knee to the face, and summarily beaten and bloodied until Rosco, with Layla in hysterics, has no choice but to throw in the towel.
Facing life as an aging underdog with a broken eye socket, a detatched retina and possible blindness, it becomes clear that Mickey may never set foot in the ring again – a point of introspection that often conflicts with the peace he’s still keen to find as a family man working multiple jobs. His only real solace, though, is that he still gets to give private lessons, as little and low as the demand is, at first.
Alas, Mickey is yet to face his greatest trial to come, from the quietly disapproving sensei he shares space with at the local dojo and learning to live with his former rival’s success – shepherded by none other than fight promoter Dick Mason (Dennis Quaid), to the moment he is forced to cope with tragedy amidst the stark reality he fears most for his son. The real issue from then on, is if Mickey can hang on long enough to see the tides finally turn in his favor, and regain his footing for a rare chance at redemption, for the love of everything he holds dear – his family, friends, and the indelible influence of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
There are ample elements to take from Born A Champion in its near decade-long chronicling of our protagonist’s journey, many of which deal with the subject of MMA as a counter culture that also extended to the halls of the government. Crucial to this is the culmination of its popularity among younger demographics, heading toward the incipiency of the internet, and the transformative early impact of the viral video.
If Afshar’s name stands out, you might recall he was the inspiration for Ranarivelo’s 2016 movie, American Wrestler: The Wizard, which he produced with actor George Kosturos starring. Both actor and producer would reteam a few years later for a spiritual follow-up in the form of Shaun Paul Piccinino’s American Fighter, which would re-introduce Kosturos’s character in a new vein with Flanery co-starring and suitably getting to add a BJJ twist to the film’s fighting narrative.
Having worked on different kinds of films through his ESX banner, it is here he exudes the kind of acuity it takes to put together a hearty action drama with a solid director on hand. He also lends a healthy supporting performance as the affable Sheik, alongside that of Bowden as the loving Layla who aspires to live the more preferential simple life with a loving partner, and Compte inaugurating our protagonist as his best friend.
Adding to the mix aside from a spiffy cameo by a certain member of the Gracie family, are actors Reno Wilson who plays an Olympic champion named Terry, and with Mandylor as the film’s sneering placeholder villain seemingly heavily invested in Mickey’s demise. The addition of Mason to the story serves to underscore a key inflection point that intially goes unmentioned in the film until the third act as things eventually come full circle.
Capping it all off of course, are the chief action sequences and stunts, all coordinated by Flanery and tweaked to befit where and when they would best suit the film. The action itself is delivered through a palpable lens, with Flanery’s character effectively teaching the very essences of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu throughout the film on bases both philiosophical AND physical, and with choreography that bodes as pragmatic and thrilling. The final action scene culminates things in cohesive fashion with an ineffaceable bravura fight finale that thrills with gravitas in MMA cinema.
One point worth underlining here is when Mickey steps to the bathroom just after Dimitri’s hefty ex-Spetsnaz bodyguard, Alvah (Steve Tanabe), to the men’s room moments before swooping in to defend Layla’s honor as he sits down and holds her hand, his knuckle visible with Alvah’s blood. Granted, Mickey’s code pertains to ending fights instead of starting them, though of course, the brilliance here from the fracas intently hidden from the film is that nobody knows who threw the first punch – a fair play to make when dealing with a powerful and privileged creep who can’t take “no” for an answer, and an otherwise good topic for the watercooler, if you ask me.
Many directors have attempted to tap into this genre with their own storied treatments of martial arts filmfare. Commercial appeal aside for many of these titles, nary do you get a film that stands to be as transformative as the works of, say, Shunichi Nagasaki (Kuro Obi), or Yang Yun-ho (Fighter In The Wind), or even David Mamet (Redbelt).
Still though, there’s much more than meets the eye for Ranarivelo’s Born A Champion, a story that reignites and substantiates the MMA film genre for another generation, whilst overtly handing you a little something else beyond the visage. If you’ve ever been in love with someone, or something bigger and greater than you, you’ll understand. Flanery, Ashfar and Ranarivelo do, and in Born A Champion, it shows.
Born A Champion fights its way into select theaters, on Digital, and On Demand January 22 from Lionsgate. The film will also be released on Blu-ray and DVD on January 26.
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.
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