Director R.L. Scott may be a nary blip on the radar, but he’s indeed one of the treasured handful of directors who has made use of the stunt and action talent field in past decade to date. You’ll find plenty of them in his 2008 and 2010 installments, Champion Road and Champion Road: Arena, both comprised of many of the usual trops of most independent productions – digitally shot and lacking in several areas in terms of audio, but well versed enough to intrigue the minds of genre fans.
Both films journey into the world of Johnathan Merser, an ex-con whose devoted live-in girlfriend, Rain, suddenly falls ill from cancer. Desperate for the money he needs to invest in a life-saving surgical procedure, he turns to Grant, a close friend whose connections run deep into the city’s illegal underground fighting circuit where cash comes quick if you win, and death comes even quicker and painful if you lose, or skim out on its ringleader, King.
Merser, eager to put his prison boxing skills on display, fails to earn King’s favor in a preliminary bout with another fighter. Undeterred, he sets out to acquire the teachings of Soleem, a reclusive sifu who reluctantly accepts him as his disciple, teaching him the way of the fist in a sprawling, six-week camp that transforms him into the warrior he needs to be to take on King’s fighters – including his toughest, Abel.
Merser’s victorious wins show promise, of course, but the inevitable twist – the first of several to come in both films – will ultimately determine whether or not he has what it takes when King crosses the line, cornering Merser into coming after him and ending what was once a promising monetary arrangement before it takes his family away forever.
Following the events of the first film, Champion Road: Arena sees Merser teamed up with an unexpected new ally as they set out to rescue Grant who is suddenly held captive. The two soon discover a greater task at hand when they learn of a street tournament in Los Angeles, run by King’s brother, Solomon, in which new heroes are brought into the fray for their own purposes: an ex-junkie/alcoholic divorcee looking to reunite with his family, a female vigilante with a short fuse, a Japanese cop looking to rescue his brother and settle an old score, and Soleem’s long-lost son who eyes to avenge his brother’s death.
Both Champion Road and Champion Road: Arena culminate a centrally diverse roster of actors in a story that hybridizes both urban crime drama and the kind of martial arts mythos one would find in certain anime properties like Fist Of The North Star and Baki, which invariably enriches the martial arts atmosphere Scott creates between the two movies. The sequel evolves the story universe immensely to achieve this through its character development between Abel, and newcome villain, Moses – both warriors of their own time with a purist ideology that drives them. The only difference is that while both live only for the fight, at least one of them lives for something much more valueable.
Consumers might be able to live-out the technical production flaws of both films to enjoy the story as much as any martial arts and action fan given the ambitious nature of the story and its albeit substantive scope. The only real issue in terms of the sequel is its third-act construction wherein a prominent leading character suddenly disappears from the film and several of the story arcs are left unfinished despite all fights fought.
There’s a certain conceptual ripeness to both films that still feels untapped to date, and so it’s a fair deal to wonder if, and maybe even hope that Champion Road gets a proper reboot now that Scott’s own filmmaking muscles have grown immensely with recent productions Call Me King, and upcoming inaugural superhero crime drama, Lazarus. The Champion Road saga in its current state may not be a perfect IP, but from the sum of its parts, there’s plenty to take in its enjoyment.
Look for Champion Road and Champion Road: Arena on Tubi.