Written & Directed by Jesse Johnson
Starring Dominique Vandenberg, Stephen Bauer, and Stana Katic
Released by: 20th Century Fox
My Advice: Skip it.
Jack Severino (Vandenberg) is having a rough time in the mean streets of Mexico (or maybe it’s South America…it’s really hard to tell, and I don’t know that anybody ever clarifies the issue). He’s been shot up and lost all of his memory except a vague recollection of an attractive woman that he seems to remember he might have been in love with. Oh, and his only marketable skill is kicking ass and taking a beating. So.
Enter Manolo (Bauer), a low-level hustler in a cheap suit who sees an opportunity to hit the big time with Jack as a pit fighter (except he doesn’t know Jack’s name, so spends the whole movie calling him “Fighter”). Jack is very very good at breaking peoples’ heads in the ring, so they make a little bit of loot. Then there’s a very rapid sprint to a half-assed ending involving money stolen from the “mafia” (I think they mean “cartel,” which would make it South America, but who knows?) and the most ridiculous shootout scene in the history of cinema.
[ad#longpost]On one level, I have a hard time faulting this film for being bad. It has lots of promising pieces, and an ending that essentially wrecks all the good will the film had earned. Shot in thirteen days for just over half a million bucks, Pit Fighter looks significantly better than it has any right to. There’s nothing about the film that immediately suggests low-budget…it just looks like the standard lame action titles spun out by the middle-tier studios every year. The only significant hint that something is amiss are the extras. In a movie set in “South Amexico,” one would expect crowd scenes full of folks of some Hispanic extraction. Here, they’re almost entirely African. Apparently, due to some commitment to one of the film’s investors, nine days of the thirteen-day shoot were on a Caribbean island that’s approximately 12 square miles in area. This is one of the many reasons I’m having a hard time coming down too hard on either the film’s director or it’s leads.
As to leads, Dominique Vandenberg does a serviceable job as a laconic action anti-hero. It’s nice to see a non-HK action flick wherein the purported martial arts badass character actually appears to know what he’s doing. This would be because Vandenberg is a serious real-life badass, having mastered several fighting styles and spent time in the ring as a Muay Thai kickboxer after he left his stint in the French Foreign Legion, where he spent his last six months as one of the Legion’s hand-to-hand combat instructors. He came to Hollywood’s attention while he was teaching Leonardo di Caprio to knife-fight for Gangs of New York, though he had done a bit of stunt work and acting previously. This film marks his third outing with Johnson as writer/helmer, but it looks like their weakest to date.
The most serious charge against the film is the final scene, predictably a climactic gun battle/slayfest with Our Hero Jack against an entire village full of gun-toting bad guys. Rather than go for the tense, running battle of hiding places and booby traps and picking off the baddies one by one, we get Hero Bullet Immunity the likes of which we haven’t seen since G.I. Joe or A-Team. The absolute ridiculousness of the final sequence pretty much spoils all that had come before. The only comparison I can really conjure is if the camera had actually continued rolling when Butch and Sundance charged outside to fight the entire Bolivian Army, and instead of a freeze frame, they had managed to kill several hundred with their six-guns.
Of features, there are none whatsoever. Which is a real shame, honestly, because I’d like to hear Johnson talk about the difficulties of a thirteen-day shoot on a shoestring budget, and having to move the entire production to the Caribbean for nine of his thirteen days. I’d also like to hear Vandenberg talk about the French Foreign Legion, life as a kickboxer in Thailand, or any other damned thing, really. He’s got a fascinating biography, and some decent extra features would actually make this thing worth picking up (provided you could get it on the cheap). Tragically, we get nada except both a widescreen and fullscreen print of the film. If you really want to see the Badass from Belgium (and we sure as shit are not talking about Van Damme), this might merit a rental, but word on the street is you should track down his 2002 picture The Honorable.