As a few of my contributors might or might not posit in any conversation about MMA in cinema, the start of the new millennium into the early 2010s was an interesting point in time for the genre. Actors and professional athletes were courted to spotlight a number of directors and producers for their endeavors, and while some have fallen into direct-to-video obscurity, others have certainly paid off in their own way.
From this critic’s perspective, it all boils down to how you tell a story, and there are a number of examples that exhibit exactly how some filmmakers can absolutely fail at this, which is almost mind-boggling considering they may still end up directing again. With director and screenwriter Jesse Quiñones, that conversation goes welcomingly different in the wake of his latest film effort, Cagefighter: Worlds Collide, that conversation will go invariably different when it comes to writer and director Jesse Quiñones.
The film is host to a raft of celebrity fanfare to suit the backdrop of our story, introducing prospective Legends champion, Reiss Gibbons (Alex Montagnani), a five-time victor in the light-heavyweight division, and riding high with sponsorships and near limitless other perks. Guided by manager Reggie (Elijah Baker), coach Marcus (Chuck Liddell) and loving wife, Ellie (Georgia Bradner), Gibbons is now at the top of his game and smothered with opportunities.
Little does Gibbons know that his biggest test is yet to come when Legends heiress, fight promoter Max Black (Gina Gershon) ropes Elijah in for a seemingly lucrative opportunity to face off in the ring with Randy Stone (Jonathan Good), the AEW’s biggest wrestling sensation with the biggest mouth, and the biggest chip on his shoulder to show for it. Putting their pride aside, Gibbons accepts the offer to fight Stone, causing nothing short of a media firestorm between the worlds of MMA and wrestling, with fans and celebrities on both sides doubting the others’ chances.
The intensity in the days and moments before fight night is just as high and climatic as it is on the evening of, and lo and behold, Stone singlehandedly turns the tables on the world of mixed-martial arts, beatings Gibbons on live television for the fight fans and netizens to witness. The immediate aftermath of the fight is an instant shock to Gibbons, once more than self-assured and affirmed of his skills, now reduced to desperate measures to redeem himself anyway he can, and ultimately, leaving to question if he truly is worth a second chance.
A story like Cagefighter: Worlds Collide, is exactly the kind of story the everyman can relate to. It’s one of hardship and struggle, and it’s led by a character whose elite fighting skills are put to the test for the first time by a freshman who’s proven himself to be more than the hype. Far from putting on airs, his victory against Gibbons is nothing short of the kind of chance moment that can arise in the blink of an eye, and the film adequately progresses into the numerous ways that Gibbons’s defeat affects him, as a proper rude awakening.
The casting of Montagnani also proves beneficial to the film given he’s been acting since 2014, and an aspiring athlete since the age of four. As challenging as it is to find actors who can also tackle the demand for screenfighting prowess, it’s not everyday you will find someone who has ample experience in both, in addition to competing in the same sport that sits centric to the film in which that athlete stars. With that in the air, Montagnani’s performability can be hit or miss depdending on your own perceptions, but there’s no mistaking the glimmering moments in which he carries the role of Gibbons with gravitas and sublimity.
Gershon’s tomboyish Max Black proves herself to be just as tough and tenacious as the boys in the room, and as thematic as the film is on the subject of the underdog’s struggle, it’s no accident that the film reveals her as the inheritors to her father’s legacy, just shy of making obvious the kinds of hurdles females have had to contend to over the years in the male-dominated corporate world, without question.
It’s also worth taking heed to the importance of establishing a good conflict worthy of inspiring viewers to get behind our protagonist. Adhering to the sorts of similar bravado and bluster seen in his real-life arena highlights used in the film as wrestling persona, Jon Moxley, Good leads a proper charge in the role of Stone. Not only does he talk the shit he talks, he floods the zone neck high with the utmost villainy and gasconade. He’s everything you would expect in an asshole, and in characterization, it adds to the overall excitement, especially during the press conference scene where both foes are going back and forth before the presses.
Prudential in that aspect are the adoring Ellie, as well as the hulking, grisled Marcus, played by Liddell who’s done plenty of leg work in acting for mostly action films. While Liddel isn’t the most talented thespian, he indelibly shares a worthwhile stake in carrying roles that ultimately suit him well for his screen caliber, and it definitely shows in some key moments where it matters, whether it’s the bittersweet silence of seeing them pan toward each other at a distance in a locker room with a resounding uncertainty following a major turning point in the story, or Marcus looking square in Alex’s eyes with unmistakable conviction.
To boot, the essential ingredient in Cagefighter: Worlds Collide, is an even-handed, competent treatment of the action on screen, thanks to the dilligent work of stunt coordinator Daniel Ford Beavis, and Montagnani himself who had an ample hand in shepherding fight choreography. The first fight scene alone is indicative of Quiñones’s steady and well-rounded acumen of screenfighting presentation, showcasing good camerawork for each of the fight sequences, a good deal of choreography that showcases excellently stacked hits and exchanges, and editing that is proficient with the kind of action direction martial arts fans can enjoy. The fight finale does dip briefly into first-person cinematography to keep things interesting for the viewer.
More to the point though, Cagefighter: Worlds Collide a highly deserved point of pride for Quiñones as a director in a market where some filmmakers will eventually falter in being the next Isaac Florentine or Jesse Johnson, or Todor Chapkanov, if you will. The film takes you head first into some of the most grueling and self-depricating travails fighters and their managers experiences, beyond the PR and podcasting, the glitz and glam of the spotlight and the roaring sounds of arena fans cheering the show on – from the hustle and bustle of the business end, to the sweaty, vomity, bloody and bare-assedness of an all men’s locker room, and the likes of Gershon’s Max walking in like she owns all the asses in the room.
It helps that Quiñones had a great script to work from, in order to foundate his actors accordingly. That kind of storytelling takes time, patience, creativity and great relationships to make work, which makes a film like Cagefighter: Worlds Collide, an entirely watchable, exemplary work of martial arts action and drama. Where some martial arts films make use of the same ingredients only to leave viewers with a gimmicky potboiler that shoves the fan service down our throats, it’s a little more heartening to see other directors like Quiñones be able to find a distinct balance, for a film that, while not perfect, still strives to showcase something better, and wholly worth the price of admission.
Cagefighter: Worlds Collide will release in select theaters and on-demand October 9.