Following their exploits with Alex Ranarivelo’s American Wrestler: The Wizard, producer Ali Afshar and actor George Kosturos brace for more fictional territory under the stewardship of filmmaker Shaun Piccinino. Their latest effort, American Fighter, returns Afshar’s on-screen persona, Ali Jahani, back on camera for a more martial arts-tinged, revved up sequel that welcomes Tom Flanagan into the fray, and actor and BJJ blackbelt, Sean Patrick Flanery.
It’s 1981 and George Lucas’ Star Wars has long since become a burgeoning franchise hit. On the other side of the world, the deadly Iran Revolution is underway, and at the behest of his father, Ali has long since relocated to California to live with his Uncle. One day, the two head to the airport where Ali is expected to finally reunite with his family until things take a dark turn. With his mother trapped in Tehran and held against her will, and no legal methods available to have his mother brought over, Ali and his college roommate, Ryan (Bryan Craig), are forced to seek a more unconventional route from a network of individuals.
The catch? Ali will need at least $30,000 with at least half the amount up front to retain their services. After several failed bouts at job hunting in addition to pawning personal belongings and selling his car, he manages to fork over just enough to keep his efforts afloat. With nowhere to turn, Ryan puts Ali onto the innerworkings of an illegal underground fight circuit run by McClellen (Flanagan). The introduction is a little rough coming in, though a small, victorious row with another fighter eventually puts Ali in McClellen’s good graces.
It’s a double life from then on for Ali, however, as he’s pressured to maintain appearances for both his wrestling coach (Kevin Porter), and new girlfriend, Heidi (Allison Paige). The turn over is good at first with Ali winning more and more fights with help from Ryan who trains him, and also competes for Ali’s sake. Their string of luck hits an unfortunate snag though with McClellan looking to profiteer from Ali’s next fight which, in Ali’s prideful mind, thinks will be as easy a win as all the others.
The move also turns out to be a timely offering with time running out for Ali’s mother who is both ailing and caught in the crossfire of war and upheaval in the Middle East. It’s only a matter of time then until McClellen shows his true colors having deployed an alpha-level Muay Thai fighter named Bas (Eddie Davenport) to put Ali in his place, effectively conning him out of his money. When Ryan is rendered unconcious hospitalized for retaliating and Ali seeks retribution, he finds an unlikely ally in Duke (Flanery), the arena’s one-man clean-up crew and a former champion himself with a bum leg and his own afflictions.
Piccinino has come a long way since 2004’s The Bloodletting and his 2012 sophomore indie riff on the British gangster genre, The Lackey. He’s all but continued to hone in his craft on both sides of the lens and it shows in American Fighter, host to solid performances across the board from our cast.
Writers Piccinino and co-scribe Carl Morris craft a palpable snapshot of American suburbia in the early 1980s, healthily inclusive on the subject of racism which Ali still faces in many aspects of his life. Craig brings out his best as Ryan, instilling ample levity in his requisite support next to the role of Ali both in and out of the ring, along with actress Paige whose role as Heidi enlists a charming, winsome romantic arc that eventually stumbles a bit due to Ali’s cause.
Flanagan and Flanery are terrific as opposites Duke and McClellen as the film’s exploration of their shared tragic co-pilot’s Ali’s story, especially with Flanery taking the mantle as Ali’s trainer in the third act. Part of the thrill here, in particular with the role of Duke who often tries to wisen Ali to see past his own hubris, is seeing how their on-screen courtship turns into a purposeful, like-minded partnership aligned with a common and righteous goal in exacting some justice.
Several fans of Piccinino’s work under the auspices of Bat In The Sun and Truly Indie Studios will recognize the likes of actor Kevin Porter who cameos in two scenes as Ali’s semi-tolerant wrestling coach, as well as actor and bodybuilder Guy Grundy midway into the film as one of the fight circuit’s meaty competitors.
American Fighter will undoubtedly be a slightly more commercial outing with its inclusion of MMA-infused fight and stunt coordination courtesy of Noel Vega. The action is competenly shot and edited with performed by our cast, even including Piccinino who gets in a few knockout seconds of his own. Kosturos’ post-American Wrestler applications in physical acting come as a plus in shaping his character in both script and screenfighting.
What you get with American Fighter is lean, smart and enthralling action drama with enough heart and gravitas to keep you rooting for the underdog. With American Fighter, brings a new face of action stardom with Kosturos in perfect form, and for a crowd at Fantasia that should make a for a fine debut, espeically for folks who’ve seen Rocky and Star Wars and love a good old-fashioned training montage.