American Fighter

Review by Rich Cline | 3/5

American Fighter
dir Shaun Piccinino
scr Shaun Piccinino, Carl Morris
prd Ali Afshar, Christina Moore, Anna Zielinski
with George Kosturos, Sean Patrick Flanery, Tommy Flanagan, Bryan Craig, Parviz Sayyad, Allison Paige, Salome Azizi, Magen Mattox, Vince Hill-Bedford, Eddie Davenport, Tony Pasha Panterra, Kevin Porter
release UK 24.Jul.20
19/US 1h38

flanery flanagan paige

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kosturos and craig
Based on a true story, this overserious drama has a strong B-movie vibe as it continually tips over into both melodrama and bare-chested battles. While it indulges in every cliche imaginable, the movie's scrappy, growly charm holds the attention. And it also helps that the actors are adept at creating engaging characters even if the script is more interested in the superficial plot points and muscled torsos.
In 1981, young Iranian wrestler Ali (Kosturos) is studying in Northern California when he learns his father was murdered back home. But getting his mother (Aziz) out of the country is expensive. So his roommate Ryan (Craig) introduces him to McClellen (Flannery), who runs an illegal fight club with has-been trainer Duke (Flanagan). Ali's quick moves and tenacious punches make him a natural in the ring, and he's soon taking on the most dangerous hulks. Then after a mixed-martial arts smack-down with a Muay Thai champion (Davenport), Duke retrains Ali for a rematch.
The offhanded friendship between Ali and Ryan adds a welcome lightness to the film, as does Ali's corny romance with the straight-talking Heidi (Paige). Both of these relationships give a hint of texture to Ali's life as an expat. The film is sharply shot and briskly edited. So even if they're rather choppy, the well-choreographed fight scenes have a bone-crunching edge that makes us wince at each power move. Other scenes are packed with manipulative (but effective) emotional touches, and there's even a rousing Karate Kid-style training montage.

Even with his wobbly accent, Kosturos (who also played Ali in 2016's American Wrestler) has a superbly understated charisma as a beefy kid with inner depths. There's a swirl of mixed emotions in everything he does, and of course the central premise means that each victory is bitter. Kosturos has superb chemistry with Craig, who adds nice textures to fellow fighter Ryan. Meanwhile, both Flanery and Flanagan have strong moments of their own, even if they're not terribly complex characters. And Paige does more than expected with her thankless role.

Director-cowriter Piccinino maintains an urgency that drives the story forward, mixing both Ali's desire to rescue his mother and the escalating stakes of his underground fights. The narrative structure is by-the-book, with the expected story elements as Ali loses his sense of perspective, jeopardising friendships and losing everything before getting an inspirational second wind. There's never a question that this is heading to an epic climactic slug-fest. And it delivers the goods.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 21.Jul.20

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© 2020 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall