"Arena" by all accounts should be another entry into the straight to DVD wasteland, what with it's lead being known more for playing third fiddle to Robert Pattinson in the Twilight series. First time director Jonah Loop chooses to instead swing for the fences, working off a script from Tony Giglio (whose responsible for the two Death Race sequels) that doesn't prove to be worthy of taking the status of modern B-movie masterpiece, but on the same hand satisfies one's urge for brainless action, hammy performances, and a modern spin on a classic genre.
Kellan Lutz spends most of "Arena" in a perpetual state of agitation as the laughably named David Lord, a firefighter unwillingly kidnapped and forced to fight in a series of modern day gladiatorial contests which are broadcast live on the Internet. Lord's situation quickly becomes confusing as he learns it's not the femme fatale Milla (Katia Winter) pulling the strings nor her rival and the enforcer in the games Kaden aka The Executioner (Johnny Messner), but a villain fitting the comic book premise of the film itself, Logan, played by none other than Mr. Over The Top, Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson's performance elevates "Arena" a full notch with the actor not phoning in a minute of his performance, which comes off as a more restrained Octopus from "The Spirit." However, the bulk of the film centers on Lord's lone-wolf attitude towards the games themselves.
Director Loop does a nice job of working within the budget (the film has a consistent visually appealing look) while still managing to provide satisfying action sequences and the first 50-minutes of "Arena" breeze by quickly with scenes of Jackson breaking up the moments between the signature fights that are all based on a theme (read: Roman, cops vs. robbers, Samurai, etc) and carried out on a giant green screen stage with the backdrop provided via Logan's twin Asian henchwomen. The fights are briefer than expected but don't rely on Bourne-esque approaches to filming or editing and with each new contest the film teases a social message via the small groups of home viewers we get to know.
"Arena" waits until nearly the 11th hour to fall apart, although eagle eyed viewers will probably suspect something was up upon recognizing James Remar in a 3-second cameo that set's up how Lord wound up drunk in a Mexican bar. The final moments of "Arena" douse most of the fires started and betray the already thinly sketched lead character as well as do nothing to tie up the scenes of regular viewers. The final twist is a giant stunt to win back any viewers whose interest had waned, but in doing so will likely alienate the viewers still on board with the concept. "Arena" is not an original movie, but posses the potential to be at least a fun one. It's willingness to go wild in all categories sets it apart from similar offerings that build up to nothing, but sadly it contains a few too gimmicks from the twist to stunt casting (Daniel Dae Kim shows up for a few minutes in what appears to be separately filmed scenes, while Nina Dobrev, earns major mention on the box art for a 30-second at best cameo). Fans of the genre will find it a decent time waster, although shouldn't expect anything revolutionary.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is rich in the color department, accentuating the over-the-top nature of the film with a vibrant art design. Some scenes however, suffer from compression troubles, which wreak havoc on the consistency of detail; some scenes are of striking quality while others feel a half-decade or more out of step with modern standards. Contrast is artificially high, sapping any darkly lit scene of intended menace.
The Dolby Digital English 5.1 audio is shockingly front loaded, emphasizing dialogue with the same intensity as action, only rarely providing an immersive viewing experience. That aside, it's a solid track, but feels more like a boosted flat stereo track than true surround and ultimately takes the bite off a few early fights. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are included.
"Arena" adequately satisfies the B-movie itch and Jackson in particular deserves credit for taking a thankless role and treating it like big budget fare. Had "Arena" chosen to be more of a slave to uninspired conventions rather than pull a fast one with a lame brain twist ending, it would probably have a tiny little cult buzz surrounding it, unfortunately, it winds up a one-and-done experience, that only huge fans of Jackson or the neo-gladiator genre will find worth revisiting. Rent It.