My knee jerk reaction when seeing trailers for films like Kazaam, Space Jam, or Double Team was to laugh at the poor basketball fans who would actually pay to see their athletic heroes stiffly act in a feature film. Of course, I grew up watching exploitation films with football stars like Fred Williamson and Jim Brown. Though of course, that was on video over a decade later and I didn't have a clue they were sports figures until years later. To me, they were just badass black actors. And don't get me started on my love for Gymkata.
Now I pay penance for my hypocritical mockery. I basically follow three sports, tennis, boxing, and mixed martial arts. The latter has become a breeding ground for athletes who think they too can be movie stars or, at the very least, play at being movie stars in their months off between training camps. The likes of Bas Rutten, Mirko Filopovic, Ken and Frank Shamrock, Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, and Randy Couture have all shown up on tv and films, most of them the DTV or cameo/small role variety. Now, I don't care about sports figures personalities, much less their outside interests, but the b-film lover in me is drawn to the spectacle. I'm not saying I'll watch every second of Scorpion King: Rise of a Warrior just because of Randy Couture, but I will watch a few minutes, which is more than I would have without his presence.
Death Warrior's promotional media focus on the involvement of MMA athletes Quentin "Rampage" Jackson, Georges St-Pierre, Rashad Evans, and Keith Jardine, but they are all side characters. Jackson, for instance, is in three early scenes, including his one big action scene where he dies at roughly the twenty minute mark of the film. Jardine has the most substantial role, ironic considering how in the sports world he is considered the least charismatic of the MMA'ers cast in this film. Death Warrior's true star is Hector Echivarria, an Argentine action guy who has a number of DTV action films you've likely never heard of under his belt. He also co-wrote and choreographed Death Warrior.
Reinero (Echivarria) is the longtime heavyweight champion of the "Ultimate Challenge" mixed martial arts event. One night a hit squad breaks into his house, captures him, and injects Reinero's wife with a neurotoxin. It seems the nefarious Ivan Mikhailov (Nick Mancuso) has arranged an underground fight to the death that is broadcast and bet on by a secret society of the rich elite. Reinero and other fighters Shaman (GSP), Wolf (Jackson), Andre (Jardine), and El Croco (Evans) are blackmailed into fighting, otherwise their loved ones will die.
So, yeah, there is no way for me to write out a synopsis that colors Death Warrior as anything other than generic dumb action film plot #100. Its really just a bungled series of cliches and weird action film logic, like the fact that Reinero is sold to us as famous when his agent pitches him a role in an action movie that only plays on cel phones. Yeah, I don't get it either. Why not say, Ridley Scott or Micheal Bay wants you for their next epic? High-kicking Echivarria is another in a long line of English as a second language stock heroes and he doesn't really go to any lengths to paint himself as anything special. Mancuso shamelessly mugs, spits, yells, and cartoonishly grins through every scene. Shek Kin he is not. But, he is the only villan I can recall that leaves a nice fruit plate out for his guests. The MMA stars just sort of show up to get pummeled on, though, as I said, Jardine gets significantly more screentime with the final survivor/buddy role.
The most memorable thing about Death Warrior for me was not some action scene or performance. Instead, I was left puzzled by how the director chose to film every bit of gratuitous nudity- of which there is plenty of the very fake titty variety- in some strange blurry slow motion. The effect is akin to being dizzy, so I imagine he was trying to reproduce the effect that an older man with high blood pressure might have when getting an erection. Also a further bit of uncomfortable soft core naughtiness, in Death Warrior's world, your wife dying of a toxin that is slowly shutting down her nervous system, leaving her sick and decrepit, is apparently not enough to keep a horndog hero off his betrothed. Very bizarre.
As for the action, the MMA stars are really just on hand as opponents and they don't seem to have influenced the scenes very much. Sure, there are some leglocks and a triangle choke, but they aren't exactly accurate. The triangle, for example, is used to break someones neck, not choke them. Its mostly wild swinging hooks, leaping kicks, and awkward bullrushes, all of it filmed way too close and edited far too fast to have any impressive impact. Only GSP with his smaller, more agile frame has a slightly more distinctive personality, otherwise the fight scenes and fighters are all interchangeable in their style. Well, thats not entirely true. There is a strange and ultimately silly use of chain pulleys in the Rashad fight. In addition to the MMA stars, Echivarria also fights an anonymous ninja (why not?) and then takes on old man Mancuso in a sword versus knife fight for the dud of a finale.
The key acronyms are DV and DTV for this Anamorphic Widescreen picture. Being a low budget direct to video film shot on digital video, there are the usual production and source quirks. Overall it is just glitchy with some slight edge enhancement and motion blur. Still, for a low aiming action number, the pic is mostly fine with decent sharpness, color, contrast, and overall details.
A sole 5.1 audio track is complemented by Spanish language subtitles. Trust me, you will need those subtitles as Echivarria pronounces words like "military" as "mee-lee-torry." The hollow action fx is very stock and straightforward in its mix. Dialogue is sometimes a little ruddy in its recording. The repetitive score is some generic rock by the band Boomtang, and it does the film no favors in offering any personality to the transitions or fights scenes.
Extras for film include a Trailer, Behind the Scenes (13:34), Rules of a Knife Fight (5:22), Interviews: Rashad Evans (1:36), Georges St-Pierre (1:34), and Keith Jardine (1:52), Micro Video (1:43), and Training with BJ Penn (1:15).
The interviews are short and the running time consists of lots of b roll fight footage and then a few brief, innocuous words by the subjects. The Behind the Scenes and Rules of a Knife Fight featurettes are typical glad-handing promo stuff. The BJ Penn footage, which looks like it was for the web, is a random bit with some guy who won a chance to train with Penn via a contest.
Though I knew what I was getting into, I secretly hoped that this Death Warrior would actually be Turkish ace Cuneyt Arkin's 1984 bizarro-ninja-action masterpiece. But no. Maybe someday.
One day someone will make a really neat action film with heavy use of mixed martial arts moves. Maybe that movie will actually cast a true athlete or two who wont give a wooden performance. So far, only Donnie Yen has come close to incorporate submission and grappling moves in S.P.L. and Flashpoint. The rest consists of higher grade letdowns like Never Back Down, Fighting, and Redbelt and lower on the video tier offerings like Street Warrior and Death Warrior. Maybe if you are a hardcore MMA fan looking for a giggle, this might be worth checking out, but most folks will want to skip it.