Review: ‘American Fighter,’ starring George Kosturos, Tommy Flanagan and Sean Patrick Flanery

July 10, 2021

by Carla Hay

Tommy Flanagan and George Kosturos in “American Fighter” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“American Fighter”

Directed by Shaun Paul Piccinino

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1981, primarily in California and briefly in Iran, the dramatic film “American Fighter” features a predominanlty white cast of characters (with some Middle Eastern and African American people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A high school wrestler, who has immigrated to California from Iran, gets involved in underground fighting to raise enough money to bring his ailing mother to the United States. 

Culture Audience: “American Fighter” will appeal primarily to people who like watching predictable fight movies.

George Kosturos and Sean Patrick Flanery in “American Fighter” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“American Fighter” uses every possible movie cliché about an “underdog” fighter who has to beat the odds and surpass people’s low expectations to reach a certain goal. There’s nothing creative or imaginative about this film. The only angle that makes “American Fighter” different from similar movies is that the protagonist is an Iranian immigrant in the United States. However, the fight scenes and the protagonist’s quest for a big payoff achievement is as formulaic and stereotypical as can be, regardless of the protagonist’s ethnicity.

Directed by Shaun Paul Piccinino, “American Fighter” takes place in 1981, when Iran was in political upheaval and numerous Iranians fled the country to seek asylum elsewhere. One family of refugees is the Jahani family: patriarch Farhad Jahani (played by Tony Panterra), his wife Goli Jahani (played by Salome Azizi) and their son Ali (played by George Kosturos, also known as George Thomas), who is about 18 or 19 years old. Ali has already been sent to the United States ahead of his parents, who plan to join Ali later. In the meantime, Ali is a college student who lives on campus when he’s not living with his uncle Hafez Tabad (played by Ali Afshar), who is Goli’s brother.

“American Fighter” is the sequel to the 2017 sports drama “American Wrestler: The Wizard,” with both movies starring Kosturos and produced by Ali Afshar, who plays Ali Jahani’s uncle Hafez in both movies. “American Wrestler: The Wizard,” which also had Ali Jahani as the protagonist, is based on Ali Afshar’s real-life experiences as an Iranian immigrant who was on his California high school’s wrestling team. “American Fighter” continues Ali Jahani’s story as a college student.

In the beginning of “American Fighter,” Ali is shown as a first-year student at the fictional North East Cal University in California. He’s on the school’s male wrestling team (called the Bulldogs), and he’s one of the more talented people on the team. However, Ali isn’t living up to his wrestler potential. And he experiences xenophobia and racism from people who are part of the team.

The Bulldogs’ Coach Jenkins (played by Kevin Porter) tells Ali, “I don’t want another foreign scholarship on my roster. You want to stay? You’ve got to show me something.” Meanwhile, in every movie about a student athlete involved in team sports, there always seems to be a jealous rival on the same team. In Ali’s case, it’s a bully named Chet Mueller (played by Vince Hill-Bedford), who frequently hurls racist insults at Ali during the team’s practice sessions. You can almost do a countdown to the inevitable fist fight that Chet and Ali will have.

When the day comes for Ali’s parents to travel to America, tragedy strikes. Before the plane takes off, a group of Iranian terrorists invade the plane where Ali’s parents are and take some hostages, including Ali’s parents. Ali’s father Farhad is shot and killed, while Ali’s mother Goli has gone missing. And making matters more stressful, Goli is sick with an unnamed ailment. She needs life-saving surgery and treatment, which is one of the main reasons why Ali’s parents wanted to immigrate to the United States.

Ali and his uncle Hafez are devastated by the news that Farhad is dead and Goli is missing. Ali and Hafez go to the local chapter of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services and are told that there’s nothing this government agency can do for them because it doesn’t get involved in terrorist kidnappings. However, Ali and Hafez find out about a mysterious Iranian operative named Mr. V (played by Parviz Sayyad), who lives nearby and who can give them “private” help.

Ali and Hafez meet with Mr. V, who tells them that Goli is probably being held hostage somewhere in Iran, but Mr. V’s team can find her and bring her to the United States, for a fee of $30,000. Hafez only has $5,000, while Ali sells many of his possessions (including his family jewelry and his car) and comes up with $9,000. Of course, that’s still not enough to pay the fee, and time is running out for Goli to get her life-saving surgery.

Ali’s best friend at school is Ryan Calder (played by Bryan Craig), who is on the same wrestling team. Ali confides in Ryan about his family and money problems. One night, Ryan takes Ali to an underground fight club, where Ali is shocked to see what’s going on. Ryan tells Ali that in the past, he sometimes participated in these underground fights to make extra money. Ryan stopped doing underground fights because he’s on the wrestling team and doesn’t want to risk getting expelled from the team.

Ryan introduces Ali to a Scottish man named McClellan (played by Tommy Flanagan), the tough and greedy chief of the fight club. McClellan’s right-hand man is Benjamin Duke (played by Sean Patrick Flanery), who goes by the name Duke and who mainly gives medical assistance to the fight club participants. Duke is a former boxing champ who’s now down on his luck and has a tragedy in his past because of his alcoholism. In other words, in a stereotypical movie like this one, he’s going to end up training Ali to be an underground fighter.

During Ali’s first visit to the fight club, he has such culture shock that he ends up saying the wrong things. He asks McClellan about the possibility of participating in the fights: “So, you just pay us to beat each other up? Is that even legal?” Just as Ali is about to be thrown out for an insulting dimwit, a thug assaults Ali, and they start brawling. Ali capably defends himself, and McClellan is so impressed with Ali’s fighting skills that he invites Ali to participate in the fight club.

Ryan warns Ali not to do it, but Ali is desperate for money, and he eagerly accepts McClellan’s invitation. Ali easily wins his first fight, of course. And the money he gets motivates him to continue participating in the fight club, with increasingly dangerous risks. Not everything goes smoothly for Ali, because a movie like this has to have a “major obstacle” that he has to overcome before the movie’s climactic scene.

Meanwhile, Ali ends up having a romance with a sorority member named Heidi (played by Allison Page), who made the first move on Ali by inviting him to a party thrown by her sorority. It should come as no surprise that Chet seems interested in Heidi, but she rejects Chet’s advances and makes it clear that she wants to be with Ali. And so, it’s another reason for racist Chet to hate Ali.

Ali doesn’t tell Heidi about his family problems or about being involved in an underground fight club. Ali and Heidi’s romance is presented in this movie as very chaste. They go to a skating rink on their first date. And although Heidi and Ali eventually kiss, there’s no sex in the movie. Ali is depicted as someone who’s very shy and inexperienced when it comes to dating, while Heidi is the confident, extroverted partner in the relationship.

“American Fighter” director Piccinino co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Brian Rudnick and Carl Morris. The entire movie borrows from many other movies about teenage athletes who are underestimated, who train for a “long shot” dream, and the training is supposed to teach them about life. The fight scenes have some level of suspense, but they look overly staged and aren’t that exciting, compared to other movies about underground fight clubs.

Ali’s refugee immigrant experiences are used as a gimmicky plot device rather than being organic to his character. The closest that the movie shows to Ali sharing his connection to Iranian culture with Heidi is when he brings Iranian food to a picnic date with Heidi. The movie tries to make it look like Ali and Heidi are falling in love, but their conversations are very superficial.

That’s because this movie is really about the fight scenes, which aren’t very special. Ali’s mother Goli is shown occasionally while she’s being held captive in a room, to remind people why Ali is going through with these risky fights. Ali finds a way to get a letter to her, which is supposed to be the movie’s first big tearjerking moment, but the way it’s written is very hokey and melodramatic.

“American Fighter” makes some effort to be an authentic period movie that takes place in 1981. At an on-campus party, someone is shown breakdancing. And the movie’s soundtrack includes Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” and the Go-Go’s “We Got the Beat.” Ali and Hafez also anxiously follow the media’s news about what’s going on in Iran. However, these touches of realism aren’t enough to overcome the overall medicority of the film’s writing, directing and acting.

Kosturos does his best to show some emotional range, but it’s diluted by the hackneyed dialogue that he has to say in the movie. Flanagan and Flanery have played many characters involved in illegal activities, so they’re doing nothing new in this movie, while Craig’s Ryan character and Paige’s Heidi character are utterly generic. The appeal of underground fighting is how edgy and unpredictable it’s supposed to be, but there’s nothing edgy or unpredictable about “American Fighter.”

Lionsgate released “American Fighter” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on May 21, 2021, and on Blu-ray and DVD on May 25, 2021.