One of them got Jenna Jameson to bear the fruit of his loins while another is doing his best Mr. T impression in the upcoming A-Team film. That is the sum total of my knowledge regarding the world of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and its practitioners. At least it was until I watched Unrivaled which features performances from a number of MMA stars. While the MMA guys weren't all equally successful in crafting compelling performances, I can at least state that they were easily the best part of this Rocky clone. In case you think I'm saying this because I'm afraid of these hulking men who could probably fold me into a fleshy origami swan, you are only partially right. The other part of course is that everything is relative. In a movie where the lead actor has less range than a cardboard box and female characters exist merely to play mother / nurse / lover while shedding their clothes with alarming regularity, you can see how I would cling to the smallest scraps of charisma laid out on screen.
Ringo Duran (Hector Echavarria) is a bit of a sad sack who is in constant physical and emotional pain. The emotional part comes from the trauma of losing his mother at an early age while the physical part comes from regular beat-downs he receives in the underground cage fighting circuit. True to his last name, perhaps he was once hungry like a wolf but you get the sense that he already had his last chance on the stairway to success. Now he just tries to fight a good, clean fight with a bum shoulder while dirty opponents (like Nate Marquardt) weasel their way to victory. Since a strip club seems like the perfect place for a manly man to nurse his wounds, he works at one under the watchful eye of Kara (Jordan Madley). They even trade glances which hint at an attraction necessitated by Echavarria's role as one of the writers and executive producers of the film.
While the promise of romance with Kara is a bright spot in Ringo's life, he seems to mostly reside under a dark cloud courtesy of Sergio (Al Sapienza), a loan shark. Ringo owes 20,000 bucks in gambling debts and Sergio doesn't seem to be the forgiving type. Fortunately Ringo is surrounded by people who have more faith in him than he does in himself. When his friend Link (Steven Yaffee) signs him up to fight in a Maximum Cage Warrior league, Ringo is a bit upset until he hears that the top prize is 100,000 bucks, enough to pay off his debts and still have a sizable chunk of change left over. Cue gruff trainer, Raphael (Nicholas Campbell) and the obligatory training montage. From this point on, the movie falls into a pattern of Hector facing increasingly skilled challengers in the ring until the inevitable face off against the champion of the league.
If you have any doubts about how this one will turn out, let me assure you that this is your standard-issue underdog sports movie. Director Warren Sonoda and his gang of fighters aren't interested in rewriting any of the rules followed by stories of this genre. They simply want to goose up the action sequences by injecting them with some MMA flavor. This is a good thing too because the action scenes are the only bits of this movie even remotely worth watching. The entire set up of the film is handicapped by an utterly flat and boring lead performance by Echavarria. He manages to suck the energy out of every frame that features him trying to act. I suspect the filmmakers saw this problem coming from a mile away because the movie features so many cutaways to nudie dances in the strip club that it becomes distracting after a while. Ringo is being menaced by Sergio...quick, show some boobs! Ringo and Kara are having a tender moment...quick, show some boobs! Ringo is looking into the distance awkwardly wondering where his life went wrong...are there any boobs we haven't shown yet? Dammit...get me some new boobs...ASAP!
If you haven't already guessed, the women in this movie don't have much to do since they just stand around waiting to cheer on the men or to take off their tops. Jordan Madley may be a wonderful actress but I'll have to see her in something else to know for sure. In this testosterone-fest, the only actors who come out relatively unscathed are Campbell and a few of the MMA fighters. Although essentially portraying the spiritual successor to Burt Young's Paulie character from the Rocky films, Campbell manages to own the sole successful dramatic moment in the entire venture. He gives Ringo a pep talk late in the film and mentions the last time he saw Ringo's mother (also a competitive boxer) fight. What could be a trite inspirational speech takes on a more hushed, awe-inspiring tone. It's a deeply moving moment and one that the rest of the film doesn't even come close to matching.
I know what you're thinking. So far, I've talked about Ringo, his mom and strippers (no connection between those last two) but what about the bone-crunching MMA goodness barely contained by this film? Well, there's some of that. Nate Marquardt and Forrest Griffin feature as the cheating Popoff brothers. While Nate makes a quick appearance during the opening moments of the film, Forrest gets a little more face time during the action-focused second half of the film. Rashad Evans turns in a reasonably appealing performance as the champ who must face Ringo in the finale. Of the MMA stars, the real show stealer is Keith Jardine. Jardine plays another fighter who trains at the same gym as Ringo and is determined to take the top prize as well. Of all the fighters in the film, he is the only who brings some real menace to his role. The athleticism of the cast is well supported by Sonoda and his cinematographer Samy Inayeh who aren't afraid to put speed-ramping and slow-mo effects to good use in the polished yet gritty fights.