Review: ‘Cagefighter,’ starring Alex Montagnani, Jon Moxley, Jay Reso, Luke Rockhold, Chuck Liddell and Gina Gershon

December 1 , 2020

by Carla Hay

Alex Montagnani and Jonathan Good (also known as Jon Moxley) in “Cagefighter” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

“Cagefighter”

Directed by Jesse Quinones

Culture Representation: Taking place in London and Los Angeles, the mixed-martial arts (MMA) dramatic film “Cagefighter” features a predominantly white cast (with a few people of color) representing the middle-class and upper-middle-class.

Culture Clash: A world champion in MMA has conflicts with a pro wrestler who wants to break into MMA and become the world champion. 

Culture Audience: “Cagefighter” will appeal primarily to fans of the real-life MMA fighters and wrestlers who are in the movie, which has substandard acting and an extremely predictable, badly written story.

Chuck Liddell, Gina Gershon and Alex Montagnani in “Cagefighter” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

If you put the entire cast of “Cagefighter” in an arena filled to the brim with melted cheddar, that still wouldn’t be enough to equal the amount of cheesiness in this so-bad-it’s-almost-funny movie. No one is expecting junk like “Cagefighter” to be high art, but the movie (written and directed by Jesse Quinones) doesn’t even have exciting fight scenes, which is supposed to be the film’s main attraction. Almost everything in “Cagefighter” is formulaic, unimaginative and executed like someone who’s drunk-driving a bulldozer.

At the beginning of “Cagefighter” (which also has the title “Cagefighter: Worlds Collide”) viewers see the movie’s British protagonist Reiss Gibbons (played by Alex Montagnani) win his fifth world lightweight championship title for a mixed-martial arts (MMA) promotion called Legends. It’s a championship belt that he won undefeated. And because of his amazing winning streak, Reiss has become a very famous MMA fighter.

The movie is vague about the origins of Legends. Almost all of the people who work for Legends seem to be American, but for whatever reason, most of this story’s action takes place in London. “Cagefighter” was actually filmed in London, Los Angeles and the Canadian city of Regina.

Montagnani is a real-life professional MMA fighter who goes by the nicknames “The Mean Albatross” or “Mean.” Although he was no doubt cast in this movie for his real-life experience as a professional MMA fighter, it’s clear that the “Cagefighter” filmmakers didn’t care if he had any real acting talent. Montagnani is not the worst actor in the world, but his attempts at being a serious, dramatic actor are more painful to watch than the scenes where Reiss gets beaten up in the ring.

Reiss is supposed to be a “good guy” fighter who does things like give his time to charity and teach underprivileged kids some MMA techniques. He also believes in always treating his fans with respect.

Reiss overcame a troubled background on his path to athletic fame, fortune and championship titles. The oldest of three kids, Reiss and his siblings experienced a tragedy when their parents died when Reiss was 15 years old. After the death of his parents, Reiss had a rough upbringing in a not-so-nice environment.

However, Reiss was taken under the wing of a tough-but-tender MMA trainer/coach named Marcus (played by real-life MMA fighter Chuck Liddell), who helped Reiss become the champ he is today. Reiss says, “Marcus taught me to remain humble, in victory or in defeat.” Reiss has remained loyal to Marcus, who is still Reiss’ trainer/coach. Marcus (who is American) is a strong and mostly silent type, but Liddell still shows a lot of stiff and uncomfortable acting in this film.

As Reiss says in an interview: “If I didn’t have fighting to fall back on, I would’ve been over in a cell or in a box.”(Translation: He would’ve been in jail or dead.) Reiss’ manager and longtime friend Reggie (played by Elijah Baker) also comes from a working-class background. And just like Reiss, Reggie has the thick Cockney accent to prove it.

After winning his fifth Legends world lightweight championship title, Reiss gets flooded with offers from people in the entertainment industry. (The movie lazily depicts this showbiz courting of Reiss by having a montage of different people meeting with him in the same pub and at the same table.) Out of these offers, one of them is a deal to star in a movie, while other deals include endorsements.

Shortly after winning this championship, Reiss is relaxing in his home with his American wife Ellie (played by Georgia Bradner) and Reggie. They’re watching TV when they see an over-the-top blowhard American professional wrestler named Randy Stone (played by Jonathan Good, also known as real-life pro wrestler Jon Moxley), who’s trash-talking Reiss on TV and bragging that he could easily win in a championship MMA fight against Reiss.

Reiss’ immediate reaction is to laugh, since pro wrestling (which is very staged) is a very different type of competition than MMA fighting. MMA fighters are taken seriously as athletes, while pro wrestlers often are not. However, Reggie sees an opportunity to make more money with a crazy idea that wouldn’t work in the real world but is supposed to work in this movie since it’s the basis for the entire plot: Reggie thinks that Reiss should fight Randy for the championship title in Randy’s first professional MMA fight.

Reggie takes his idea to the chief promoter of Legends, a swaggering wheeler dealer named Maxine “Max” Black (played with almost-campy gusto by Gina Gershon), who wears a lot of black leather and thinks she’s always the smartest person in the room. Max cares less about who wins a match and more about how much money and publicity a match will get for Legends. Reggie’s idea is a very hard sell to Max, whose first reaction is to say no.

Max thinks that putting a wrestler in the ring with a well-respected MMA champ will cheapen the sport of MMA and possibly alienate some MMA fans. Reggie pitches the idea to Max by saying that it will be a “win win” for Legends, because Randy has a fan base large enough to fill an arena (the type of large-scale spectacle that Legends would want), while Reiss will probably win over a lot of Randy’s fans, which will help sell tickets to future Legends matches featuring Reiss.

“Think about Conor McGregor when he fought [Floyd] Mayweather,” Reggie pleads to Max. “Do you know how much money that guy is making in endorsements? Millions are coming out of that guy’s ass. And he didn’t even win.”

One thing that Max and Reggie agree on is that Reiss will most certainly win this match against Randy, who doesn’t have a lot of experience in MMA fighting. And so, Max says they can do the match. Reggie then has to convince Reiss, who thinks at first it’s a ridiculous idea, until Reggie says the magic words: “It’s easy money.”

In the lead-up to this championship fight, Randy (who talks as if he’s had too much caffeine or maybe a much stronger stimulant) continues his public insult campaign against Reiss. In media interviews, when people question whether a pro wrestler has what it takes to win a fight against a five-time MMA world champion, Randy arrogantly tells them that he can do it, because he’s in intense MMA training. The non-stop trash talking is what you would expect from a pro wrestler, so Goodman/Moxley doesn’t have to do much acting, but that doesn’t make the “Cagefighter” screenplay less cringeworthy.

During an interview, Randy boasts about himself and continues to degrade Reiss: “I’m in the best shape of my life. I’m stronger than him. I’m bigger than him. I’m tougher than him. I’m better-looking than him. I have no respect for him.” Meanwhile, “nice guy” Reiss sees Randy’s high-octane ego posturing on TV and says, “I want to stick a fork in him, because he’s done.”

There would be no “Cagefighter” movie if Reiss easily beat Randy in this big showdown. Things go wrong for Reiss throughout the movie. And the question becomes if he can make a comeback from all of the setbacks that he experiences. Along the way, Reiss becomes distant from his longtime trainer Marcus and hires a new trainer named Tony Gunn (played by Luke Rockhold), who works with Reiss during a part of the movie when Reiss goes to Los Angeles to train for a big fight.

One of the worst things about “Cagefighter” is how all these extreme, unbelievable things happen in the MMA world during a period of time that’s supposed to be less than nine months. A buffoon pro wrestler like Randy is suddenly able to catapult into the MMA world, and his first professional MMA fight is a world championship title with the reigning champ. And in another part of the movie, Reiss has only three weeks to prepare for a big fight.

How do we know that this story arc happens in less than nine months? Because it’s mentioned in the beginning of the movie, after Reiss won his fifth championship title, that Ellie is pregnant with her and Reiss’ first child together, and the child is born during the movie. However, Ellie never looks pregnant during the months where her pregnancy is supposed to be showing.

And in different parts of the story, there are some really dumb switches in re-classifying Reiss and Randy from lightweight to heavyweight, even though their bodies do not change during the entire movie. The MMA fight scenes are beyond ridiculous, with some heinous and illegal actions during a match (strangling and head-butting) that don’t get any MMA fighter disqualified in this movie. “Cagefighter” is presumably aimed at MMA fans, but the filmmakers don’t have to insult the fans by putting things in the movie that a fan would immediately know are illegal in the sport.

“Cagefighter” also has some almost laughably bad camera shots (parts of the fights in slow motion and melodramatic close-ups of Reiss in agony) and major problems with editing and continuity. After Reiss gets badly pummeled in a fight, his bruises, cuts and other wounds have vanished a few days later. Swollen eyes and deep gashes on Reiss’ body have disappeared faster than you can say, “People should get a refund if they’re unlucky enough to pay money to see this crappy movie.”

The music in “Cagefighter” is a weird mishmash of a score that’s reminiscent of 1970s/1980s TV dramas; modern-ish reggaeton tunes; and generic sports background music. And the production design and cinematography are sloppy, since wide shots of the arena audience look like stock footage, while closer shots of the MMA matches look like the matches are taking place on a movie set instead of a real arena. The shots of Reiss and Randy doing their gauntlet walk into a match are examples of how inauthentic the art direction looks. The fight scenes are actually quite predictable and veer into cartoonish territory, which is what you’re supposed to see in pro wrestling, not in MMA fighting.

As for the shoddily written characters in the movie, Max and Reggie seem to be the only ones who have any semblance of personalities that are somewhat entertaining to watch. Fast-talking Reggie and quick-thinking Max are both hustlers at heart, so their scenes together are the closest thing this movie has to unique liveliness. However, the lines that they have to deliver are so bad that there’s a scene where Baker (who plays Reggie) has trouble keeping a straight face and actually laughs a little when he’s not supposed to be laughing.

The character of Ellie is just another two-dimensional wife in this type of movie. Badly made sports movies like “Cagefighter” only seem to cast the wife/girlfriend/love partner of the male protagonist for the sole purpose of making sure that the protagonist has a pretty woman waiting for him at home or being a spectator during the athletic competitions to show her support.

And as an example of how poorly written the “Cagefighter” screenplay is, Ellie and Reiss never talk about their child. Viewers of this movie might forget that Ellie and Reiss are expectant parents until there’s a brief montage that includes Ellie and Reiss with the baby, who is seen on screen for only a few seconds and then never seen again.

During the end credits for “Cagefighter,” Gershon’s Max character is shown during a heavily edited monologue where she rambles on about different ideas that she has for Reiss and Legends to make more money. It’s obvious that the filmmakers told Gershon to just improvise in character, and she seems to be having lot of fun doing this improv. All this proves to viewers is that you know a movie is terrible when the footage in the end credits is better than almost the entire movie.

Screen Media Films released “Cagefighter” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on October 9, 2020. The movie’s release date on Blu-ray and DVD is December 1, 2020.

Review: ‘2 Hearts,’ starring Jacob Elordi, Tiera Skovbye, Adan Canto and Radha Mitchell

October 18, 2020

by Carla Hay

Tiera Skovbye and Jacob Elordi in “2 Hearts” (Photo courtesy of Freestyle Digital Media)

“2 Hearts”

Directed by Lance Hool

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of North America, the romantic drama “2 Hearts” has a predominantly white cast (with some Latinos, African Americans and Asians) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Two couples from two different generations experience health problems that have far-reaching effects on them and other people.

Culture Audience: “2 Hearts” will appeal primarily to people who like very sappy tearjerkers.

Adan Canto and Radha Mitchell in “2 Hearts” (Photo courtesy of Freestyle Digital Media)

Even though the romantic drama “2 Hearts” is based on a true story, there’s a cloying sheen to the movie that makes the people look too glossy to be authentic. The entire movie looks like actors trying their best to re-enact what they think the real people actually went through, instead of giving naturalistic performances that transform these actors into believable people on screen. It doesn’t help that much of the dialogue sounds like it’s from a TV soap opera or a Hallmark TV movie. “2 Hearts” certainly has an inspiring message. It’s just unfortunate that it’s delivered in a very uninspired and trite manner by a very corny screenplay and some awkward acting.

According to the production notes for “2 Hearts” (a movie that takes place in various parts of North America over five decades), the movie originally had what director Lance Hool says was “a very long and accurate screenplay” that went through several rewrites and was eventually rejected. Lance Hool’s daughter Veronica Hool and Robin U. Russin ended up writing the screenplay that was used for the movie. And it’s that screenplay which is the movie’s weakest link.

Lance Hool produced “2 Hearts” with his brother Conrad Hool, and they both run the movie’s production company Silver Lion Films. Conrad’s daughter Carla Hool was the casting director for “2 Hearts.” It’s unknown if having all of these family members involved in making “2 Hearts” could have clouded their objectivity in critiquing another family member’s work on the screenplay. But somewhere along the line, the producers didn’t have enough fortitude to take a good, hard look at the screenplay written by Veronica Hool and Russin and ask for major improvements before this film got made.

The entire movie has major tonal problems, by trying to be a screwball romantic comedy in some scenes, and yet in other scenes, it’s a weepy medical drama. “2 Hearts” is mostly a drama, but its attempts at comedy fall very hard and very flat. The decision to have one of the characters narrate the film in an irritating way is an example of how it’s sometimes better for movies to “show, not tell.”

And there’s a “twist” in the movie that is completely unnecessary. At best, this twist looks like the screenwriters needed more scenes to fill up the movie and make it closer to a typical feature length of 90 to 120 minutes. At worst, this twist is smarmy emotional manipulation, just for the sake of shocking an audience and making sensitive viewers cry. By the time the twist is revealed in the last third of the movie, astute viewers have already figured out how the two couples who are the movie’s four main characters are connected to each other.

“2 Hearts” switches back and forth in telling the stories of these two couples, but the movie is narrated by Chris Gregory (played by Jacob Elordi), the male partner from the younger couple. Chris is a tall, good-looking, athletic guy who’s 18 or 19 years old, with a goofy personality and a “puppy dog” type of enthusiasm toward life. At the beginning of the movie, Chris is seen being rushed into an emergency room. His girlfriend Samantha, nicknamed Sam (played by Tiera Skovbye), and Chris’ older brother Colin (played by Jordan Burtchett) are frantically running next to the gurney that’s carrying Chris into an examination room, until Sam and Colin aren’t allowed to go any further into the room.

What caused this medical emergency? And what were the results after Chris got medical treatment at the hospital? Those answers don’t come until the last third of the movie, but from then on, the movie has already telegraphed that Chris is not as healthy as he first appears to be in the first two-thirds of the film.

And then, when the movie introduces viewers to the other couple in the story, and it’s shown that the male partner in that couple also has health problems, it’s very easy to see where this movie is going to go. Perhaps if “2 Hearts” didn’t show Chris’ medical crisis so early in the story, the connection between the couples wouldn’t be so obvious.

Until then, it’s an often-tedious march to that inevitable “reveal,” which is not the same as the manipulative “twist” in the story. The “reveal” is obvious and necessary. The “twist” is not obvious and is very unnecessary. Until the “twist” and the “reveal” happen, the majority of “2 Hearts” is about showing how these two couples, who don’t know each other, met and fell in love with their respective partners.

Chris and Sam, the couple from the emergency-room scene, met because they’re students at Loyola University, a Jesuit college in New Orleans, not to be confused with Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, which is Chris’ hometown. When Chris and Sam meet in 2007, he is a freshman, and she is a senior at the university. They both come from loving, middle-class families.

The other two lovebirds are Jorge Bolivar (played by Adan Canto) and Leslie Folk (played by Radha Mitchell), who met on a Pan Am flight in the 1970s, when Leslie was a flight attendant and Jorge was a passenger. Jorge comes from a wealthy Cuban family that owns a mega-successful rum company. (The Jorge character is based on the real-life Jorge Bacardi.)

Jorge and Leslie, who were both in their 30s when they met, have a “meet cute” moment when Jorge asks Leslie to hold his hand during takeoff because he pretends to be nervous about flying. After some hesitation, she grants his request. And it’s clear from the way that they look at each other that it won’t take them long to get together.

When the subject of drinking alcohol comes up during the flight (since Jorge is supposedly nervous about flying), Leslie tells Jorge that her favorite brand of rum is Bolivar, and he gives her his business card. That’s how she finds out that he comes from the wealthy family that owns the Bolivar rum company. Who really knows if that happened in real life? But it’s one of those moments that looks like it was created for the movie.

Although Jorge and Leslie are both based in Miami, they have a long-distance courtship because they both travel a lot for their jobs. As soon as they begin dating, Jorge often shows up unannounced at destinations where Leslie will be, and he expects her to drop any plans she had so that she can spend all of her free time hanging out with him. While many people would be creeped-out by this presumptive and stalker-ish behavior, Leslie finds it charming and romantic. It probably doesn’t hurt that Jorge is handsome and rich.

And Jorge doesn’t tell Leslie his medical secret until long after they start dating. He’s had a serious lung disease since childhood. His lung problem is so serious that doctors had told his parents that Jorge wouldn’t live past the age of 12. Jorge has had numerous surgeries, and parts of his lungs were removed when he was an undergraduate student at Stanford University. After Jorge and Leslie get married, they have problems conceiving children. (In real life, Jorge was diagnosed with primary ciliary dyskinesia when he was in his 50s, but prior to that, he was misdiagnosed as having cystic fibrosis.)

Chris and Sam’s romance is more carefree than Jorge and Leslie’s. That is, until Chris ends up in the hospital. Chris and Sam’s “meet cute” moment happens as he accidentally bumps into her while he’s leaving a classroom and as she’s entering the same room. Chris makes a profuse apology, which she accepts, and he looks at her as if it’s “love at first sight,” as she makes her way to a seat.

It’s a scene that’s sure to induce eyerolls because it’s so mawkish, as Chris literally stops in front of the class to stare at her. He’s so entranced that the teacher asks Chris if he is staying or leaving. Sam notices that Chris is staring at her, and she smiles in the way that women do when they know that someone is immediately infatuated with them.

The next time Chris and Sam see each other, he literally bumps into her again. This time, it’s in a hallway, where Sam is putting up flyers for a fledgling student group she’s started called Safety Patrol. It’s a volunteer rideshare service for the university’s students to call if they need a safe ride somewhere. Chris gives Sam a mild critique of the Safety Patrol flyers that she’s put up on a bulletin board, by telling her that the flyers should be less intimidating and more welcoming.

It’s his way of flirting with Sam, who already can tell that Chris is very attracted to her. Chris ends up being the first volunteer to join the Safety Patrol. It also motivates Chris to get his driver’s license. And through their Safety Patrol activities, Sam and Chris get closer to each other and fall in love.

When Chris and Sam first met, she was casually dating someone named Brad, who is never seen or heard in the movie. Sam and Brad didn’t have a serious-enough relationship where they were committed to each other. Brad is mentioned a few times in the movie, and then he’s never mentioned again.

Sam also opens up to Chris about why the Safety Patrol program is important to her. Two years before, Sam’s mother was in a serious car accident that left her in a coma. Sam prayed that if her mother got out of the coma and recovered, Sam would do everything possible to help other people. Her mother came out of the coma and recovered, and Sam came up with the Safety Patrol idea as a way to keep her promise to God.

Chris and Sam’s relationship provides most of the movie’s comic relief, but Chris is written as a character who tries too hard to be funny, so his personality can become grating after a while. There’s a scene where Chris and Sam tell each other what kind of music they have on their iPods, and they alternate between teasing and praising each other about some of their musical choices. It’s meant to be cute and humorous, but it just comes across as very contrived and awkward.

There’s also an extensive Safety Patrol scene where Sam and Chris pick up three different passengers at different times on the same night. All three passengers are eventually crammed into the back of the car: a drunk sorority girl (played by Georgia Bradner), who inevitably vomits; a stoner surfer dude (played by Neil Webb); and an uptight nerd (played by Doralynn Mui), who refuses to let anyone touch the suitcase she has. This is where the movie tries to be a screwball comedy, but it doesn’t fit the tone of the rest of the story.

Chris’ often-annoying narration constantly interjects in scenes and disrupts the flow of the movie. It’s the equivalent of someone sitting near you and making constant, unsolicited comments while you’re trying to watch a movie. And because Chris is written as a goofball, a lot of his corny humor doesn’t work well for the more serious scenes that he narrates. It’s not the actor’s fault. It’s the fault of how this substandard screenplay was written.

In addition to their health problems that reach a crisis level, Chris and Jorge have something else in common: They both have tense relationships with their demanding fathers. Chris’ father Eric (played by Tahmoh Penikett) is the type of parent who, instead of comforting Chris when Chris found out that he didn’t get accepted into his first-choice university, tells Chris: “Maybe you should’ve worked harder at it.” Jorge’s father Jose (played by Steve Bacic) expects Jorge to go on strenuous business trips that aren’t necessarily good for Jorge’s health.

Jose also doesn’t really approve of Leslie because she isn’t Hispanic. And when Leslie and Jorge get married, Jorge’s parents aren’t at the wedding. It’s not stated if Jorge’s parents refused an invitation or simply weren’t invited, but it’s clear that his parents didn’t approve of the marriage. Jorge’s mother, who is barely seen in the movie, appears briefly in a hospital scene when Jorge had his lung surgery while he was a Stanford student.

Chris is the youngest of three sons. He and his older brother Colin (the middle child) both attend Loyola University, which was not Chris’ first choice. Eldest son John (played by Anthony Konechny) is the “golden child” who attends an unnamed university that’s considered more prestigious, and this university was Chris’ first choice.

Chris had high hopes of going to the same university as John, who is clearly the favorite child of their father. Chris’ mother Grace (played by Kari Matchett) is the type of parent who is compassionate and tries not to treat one child as being “better” than the other. Not surprisingly, Chris is closer to his mother than he is to his father. Despite this family tension, Chris’ family is still tight-knit and supportive of each other.

The acting in “2 Hearts” is mediocre at best, although Canto does try very hard to show range as someone who is stricken with a very serious illness. However, the way that many lines are written in this movie just reek of something that could have been in a TV soap opera. There’s a scene where Jorge says that Leslie reminds him of a peanut, so he calls her “my peanut” as a term of endearment. Try not to retch.

To its credit, the movie makes great use of showing romantic locations. There are many scenes that take place on gorgeous beaches (such as in Hawaii) or luxurious resort getaways, thanks to all the traveling that Jorge and Leslie and do and Jorge’s ability to stay at top-tier hotels. But these are superficial visuals that can’t quite make up for all the ways that “2 Hearts” is lacking in doing justice to this inspiring story.

The most problematic part of the “2 Hearts” screenplay is that unnecessary “twist.” It cheapens the movie’s message, and it’s borderline insulting to the real life-or-death situations that were experienced by the people on whom this story is based. And ultimately, it sinks what could have been a much better movie if it had a quality screenplay and a more talented cast.

Freestyle Digital Media released “2 Hearts” in U.S. cinemas on October 16, 2020.