Review: ‘Embattled,’ starring Stephen Dorff, Darren Mann, Karrueche Tran, Colin McKenna and Elisabeth Reaser

December 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Darren Mann and Stephen Dorff in “Embattled” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)


Directed by Nick Sarkisov

Culture Representation: Taking place in various U.S. cities and in Quebec City, Canada, the drama “Embattled” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Asians and African Americans) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An arrogant superstar mixed-martial arts (MMA) fighter has an up-and-down relationship with his mild-mannered 18-year-old son, and the two men end up battling each other in a high-profile MMA fight.

Culture Audience: “Embattled” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in compelling sports movies that are also emotional family dramas.

Stephen Dorff, Chris Conolley and Ethan Melisano in “Embattled” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

It seems like in every other sports movie about an underdog who’s fighting a champion, the underdog has “daddy issues” from having an absentee, abusive or neglectful father. “Embattled” is one of those movies, but it’s a cut above the average film that takes place in the world of mixed martial arts (MMA), largely because of the impressive acting by the “Embattled” cast members. Directed by Nick Sarkisov and written by David McKenna, “Embattled” has enough gritty realism about a dysfunctional and damaged family to make up for the occasional hokey dialogue and the far-fetched but not entirely impossible scenario of a famous MMA champ doing a high-profile fight against his son.

The father and son at the center of this family feud are hard-drinking, trash-talking Cash Boykins (played by Stephen Dorff) and his kindler, gentler offspring Jett Boykins (played by Darren Mann), who live in their hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, and have had an unstable and unpredictable relationship for years. The story unfolds in layers over how their relationship has changed, in order to explain why they ended up fighting in a “death match” scenario on TV. “Embattled” is also a scathing look at the cycle of abuse in families and how one person can do damage that can last for years.

In the beginning of “Embattled,” all seems to be going fairly smoothly between Cash and Jett, who is 18 years old and in his last year of high school. Cash is a world-famous but controversial MMA welterweight champ in the fictional World Fighting Association (WFA) promotion, and he has been training Jett on how to become a professional MMA fighter. Jett is not as aggressive and ruthless as Cash, who is excessively crude, sexist and proud to flaunt his obnoxiousness. Cash sees life and treats people as if anyone who isn’t a straight, white, able-bodied American male is an inferior human being.

Cash’s bigotry is on full display in the first MMA fight shown in the movie. Cash is at the MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas to do battle against a Russian fighter named Timofei Kozlov (played by Ethan Melisano), who hails from St. Petersburg. The opponents’ stats are announced sometime before the fight. Cash is 5’9″ and 171 pounds, with a record of 37 wins and one loss. Timofei is 5’8″ and 170 pounds, with 18 wins and four losses.

In the walk-up to the fight, Cash yells about his Russian opponent: “I get to kill myself a Commie! Lock and load, motherfuckers!” And later, when Cash faces off against Timofei before the opening-round bell rings, Cash declares arrogantly, “This election-meddling son of a bitch won’t take long.” Timofei sneers in response, “America sucks dick.” This tradeoff of insults is the introduction to a brutal brawl that ends with Timofei’s crushing defeat.

On a private plane after the fight, Cash’s toxic masculinity continues as he celebrates his victory. With him on the plane is his small entourage of people which includes Jett; Cash’s second wife, Jade (played by Karrueche Tran), who’s about 20 years younger than Cash; and some assorted employees. Cash wastes no time in flirting with an attractive flight attendant named Desirée, who politely brushes off his unwanted sexual innuendos. When she brings a drink to Cash, he leers at her while saying, “Ooh, yummy yum yum. The drink looks tasty too.”

Cash also tries to get the flight attendant to take a sexual interest in quiet and unassuming Jett, who doesn’t want to get involved in any hookups that Cash wants to arrange. Cash begins to brag about Jett to Desirée, who keeps a friendly and professional demeanor. When the flight attendant walks to another part of the plane out of hearing distance, Cash scolds Jett, “Are you fuckin’ blind? She’s tighter than a 7-year-old Korean boy!”

When Jett tells Cash that he doesn’t need his help in finding a date, Cash replies, “Since when did throwing out a résumé for a tasty piece of hair pie become a goddamn crime?” Cash’s offers Jett the use of his mansion as a place to bring Desirée for a sexual tryst, but Jett declines the offer. Cash is also an extremely macho father who thinks that if he has a son who doesn’t think of women as sexual conquests, the son must be a wimp or possibly gay.

Cash acts this way in full view of his wife Jade. And what does she have to say when Cash makes blatant sexual advances to the flight attendant? Jade tells her: “Desirée, sweetheart, please do not encourage that cheese.”

Jade is fully aware that Cash can be a sexually aggressive jerk, but his “bad boy” persona seems to be part of the reason why she was attracted to him in the first place. And because Jade appears to be a “trophy wife,” Cash has a charming side that treats her like a sexy goddess. Cash and Jade also have a 9-year-old son together named Kingston (played by Jakari Fraser), who is sweet and adorable and so far seems untainted by Cash’s bullying ways.

But one thing that really bothers Jade about Cash is how he’s mistreated his ex-wife and his two children from this first marriage. The marriage ended very badly 10 years before, for reasons that are revealed in a flashback. Cash’s ex-wife Susan (played by Elisabeth Reaser) used to be a high-ranking tennis player. But since the divorce from Cash, Susan has been struggling to make ends meet.

When this story takes place, Susan is working as a waitress to support Jett and his 15-year-old brother Quinn, nicknamed Q (played by Colin McKenna), who has Williams syndrome. Quinn and Jett are very close to each other. Jett treats Quinn like a protective and loving older brother, even though Jett sometimes gets impatient with Quinn.

Cash is very ashamed to have Quinn as his son and treats Quinn as inferior to Jett. Cash cruelly calls Quin a “tard,” as shorthand for “retard.” Cash also has a lot of deep-seated anger against Susan, whom he calls “Looney Tunes,” even though there’s no evidence that Susan has any mental-health issues. It’s one of many examples of how Cash belittles and demeans people in order to boost his already overinflated ego.

Jade feels strongly that Cash should try to mend his relationship with Jett and Quinn, and she wants Kingston to get to know his half-brothers better. But Cash refuses to let Quinn be a part of Cash’s family activities with Jade and Kingston. And viewers will get the impression that the main reason why Cash and Jett are now back in each other’s lives is because Cash wants to mold Jett into being another version of Cash.

Even though Cash is a multimillionaire who has four houses and 10 cars, he refuses to help out Susan financially, even when Quinn needed heart surgery and back surgery. Susan has not remarried. But even if a remarriage made her ineligible for alimony, she’s still entitled to child support.

Did Cash and Susan have a rock-solid prenuptial agreement where she wasn’t entitled to any of his money that he made during the marriage? Did she have terrible legal representation in the divorce? Or did something else happen to explain why she got such a raw deal of not getting reasonable alimony and child support? Those questions aren’t really answered in the movie, but the flashback showing the turning point in Cash and Susan’s bad marriage implies that she very likely chose to walk away from the marriage with no money because she was desperate to be rid of her lousy husband.

Jade and Cash argue because Jade thinks that Cash should be more compassionate to Susan, Jett and Quinn. Cash firmly believes that Susan, Jett and Quinn don’t deserve his financial help or compassion because that would be “coddling” them. Cash and Jett have been recently connecting because Cash is training Jett to be a professional MMA fighter. But beyond MMA, their father/son relationship is still a work in progress.

Jett has been accompanying Cash to as many of Cash’s MMA fights as possible. And this frequent traveling means that Jett has been skipping a lot of classes at school. He’s on the verge of flunking out of a math class, and a failing grade in this class would mean that he can’t graduate from high school.

Jett’s math teacher Ms. Malek (played by Lindsey Garrett) recommends that he get a tutor. It just so happens that Jett has a crush on a pretty and smart student named Keaton Carmichael (played by Ava Capri), who is headed to West Point after graduation. Guess who ends up being Jett’s tutor?

Meanwhile, Quinn goes to the same school, but he’s in a class for kids with special needs. The class is taught by Dan Stevens (played by Donald Faison), a military veteran who is also a paraplegic. Dan treats his students with respect, and he has a special bond with Quinn. It’s one of the reasons why Jett decides to play matchmaker and encourages his mother Susan and Dan to start dating each other.

Jett and Cash have been trying to improve their father/son relationship, but Cash makes it difficult because he’s relentless with his criticism of Jett. During their training sessions, Cash even insults Jett’s taste in music to try to make Jett feel like a “sissy.” When Jett says he likes the music of Colbie Caillat (who’s best known for her 2007 hit “Bubbly”) and other female singer/songwriters, Cash admonishes Jett by telling him that he should be listening to hard rock/heavy metal acts like Rob Zombie, Deftones and System of a Down. Jett responds good-naturedly by telling Cash: “I love my girls. Deal with it.”

It’s clear that Jett is a good guy who both loves and fears his father. Jett wants Cash’s approval but doesn’t necessarily want to be like Cash. And it could be left up to viewers’ interpretation if Jett really has a passion for MMA or if his ambition to be a successful MMA fighter is mainly because he wants to impress Cash. Jett’s worries about his future after high school and his need to get Cash’s approval take a toll on Jett’s self-esteem, because there’s a point in the story where Jett breaks down and tells Susan that he thinks of himself as a loser.

Although it’s not completely explored in “Embattled,” there’s a layer of anxiety in Susan feeling torn about her animosity toward her ex-husband (whom she really distrusts) and allowing Cash back into Jett’s life. How long should she hang on to those resentments toward her ex-husband? How much can Cash be trusted?

Money is a huge motivating factor for much of what happens in this story. Susan expresses a lot of concern when Cash tells her one day that he’s entered Jett into a fight with a 12th-ranked MMA fighter. Susan doesn’t think Jett is ready to compete with someone on that level, but Jett is a legal adult, and they could use the prize money if he wins.

Cash is an apt name for this blowhard MMA fighter because he’s very money-hungry and sees himself as a know-it-all wheeler dealer. He goes to WFA co-owners David Adelsberg (played by Mark Fite) and Rami Elbahri (played by Adam Karst), and attempts to pressure them into giving him and other MMA fighters better perks, such as bigger minimum fees, health-insurance benefits, pensions and higher revenue sharing. Cash threatens to form a union for MMA fighters if the WFA owners don’t give in to his demands. As the most famous fighter of WFA, Cash tells them that they need him more then he needs them.

The story in “Embattled” becomes much more interesting in the last half of the movie. Jett is at Cash’s Birmingham mansion for a small house party, where he observes Cash teaching Kingston some basic fight techniques. Cash grows impatient with Kingston and becomes verbally abusive and physically aggressive with the child. It triggers a flashback memory in Jett that leads to him becoming estranged from Cash again.

This falling out results in greedy Cash coming up with the idea of pitting himself against Jett in a major televised fight. And because their estrangement has become very bitter, Jett decides to go to Quebec City to train with a French Canadian named Claude (played by Saïd Taghmaoui), who is a major rival from Cash’s past. (“Embattled” was really filmed in Alabama.) The battle between father and son in the ring is suspensefully filmed, but the real battle in this story is over trust and emotions.

What makes “Embattled” stand out is that it’s not a simple “good versus evil” story or a basic “champion versus challenger” sports movie. Cash can easily be considered a predictable villain, but there are several moments in the film where Dorff brings real depth to the character. Cash is a terrible husband and father, but is he evil or just really damaged?

And the abuse that Cash inflicts will make people wonder why he turned out that way. It should come as no surprise that Cash’s father abused him as a child. It doesn’t excuse Cash’s awfulness, but “Embattled” shows viewers in some harrowing ways how abuse can be denied or blocked out but can still have devastating effects.

Ultimately, the heart and soul of the movie belong to Jett. Cash might be a lost cause, but how much will Jett follow in his father’s footsteps? Mann gives an admirable performance representing the possibility that the cycle of abuse in a family can be stopped and the healing can begin.

IFC Films released “Embattled” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on November 20, 2020.

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