BEATDOWN is yet another movie to add to my list of formulaic underground fighting movies that I found pretty enjoyable. It’s produced by the company Tapout, and to be honest I don’t 100% know what Tapout is, but this definitely seems like a movie aimed at the people who wear their t-shirts. It’s about small town working class folks who drive gigantic pickup trucks and only care about cage fighting. They all have some sort of tragic past involving a dead and/or abusive parent, which they talk alot about. The soundtrack is all a type of rock music that makes me cringe with embarrassment, but I can acknowledge that it might sound good to the target audience. It’s a little weird though when a singer is wailing and grunting about “a wildfire in the streets” over a scene that takes place in a barn.
It’s the story of Brandon, a young underground fighter whose brother gets murdered and gangsters tell him he has a week to fulfill a $60,000 debt. There’s no way he can do that so he decides to get away from it all. He gets on his motorcycle, participates in a driving montage, and ends up at his dad (Danny Trejo)’s trailer in some hick town outside of Austin.
I’ve been systematically going through every movie of this type even if I know nothing about them or their stars. It took a bit before I realized that Brandon was played by Rudy Youngblood, the star of APOCALYPTO. Did you know he got an action vehicle after that? I like that.
He gets a job moving pallets (I was surprised the job never got more complicated than that) and starts hanging out with his co-worker Todd (Jeff Gibbs) who shows him the ropes of the town, including that this one horse town makes up for the lack of horses with a huge fighting circuit involving world class fighters (played by famous UFC goliaths) and rich high rollers who bet tens of thousands on them.
Also, this is never pointed out, but I believe every single woman ever seen in the town looks like a model. As he shows up at his first fight there’s a wet t-shirt contest going on, and although his reaction is kind of a bemused “wow, this is the kind of thing they do around here” the editing, camera work and electric guitar noodling’s reaction is definitely more of a “HIGH FIVE BRO THIS IS SOOOOOO AWESOME!!!!” Fair enough.
Brandon spots and immediately zeroes in on Erin (Susie Abromeit, BATTLE: LOS ANGELES, Jessica Jones), who Todd warns him to stay away from because her brother is a psycho. Instead Brandon walks right up to her and starts talking to her and they pretty much are in love the first couple words he mumbles. But as warned her brother Victor (Eric Balfour, HELL RIDE) is enraged that a man is talking to his sister and breaks a bottle over Brandon’s head. Victor, you will surely be surprised to learn, is also the local fighter to beat.
So the stage is set. Brandon keeps trying to see Erin and also to be entered into the fighting circuit. At least one fighting montage is intercut with a holding-hands-laughing-and-having-romantic-fun-together type montage. He recognizes a fighter as a former legend named Drake Colby (English UFC guy Michael Bisping) and ends up being managed by him (but not trained by him, weirdly). There’s alot of HARD TIMES business where they go to different sketchy locations with stacks of cash for brutal fights betting against untrustworthy people.
Most of the opponents in the fights I could tell were cameos by famous MMA fighters I wasn’t familiar with. Bisping actually has to act, and I liked him. Maybe it’s the accent, but he seems like he would’ve been a good choice to replace Statham in either the TRANSPORTER sequel or TV show. More of a brawler version of Frank Transporter. Actually he looks a little bit like the puffed up rubber suit version of Statham from that part in CRANK 2.
One major drawback: the fight editing (credited to Dave Macomber, also a stuntman who doubled Sam Worthington in SABOTAGE) is, I’m sorry to say, atrocious. Every single bout is slathered in fourteen layers of Avid fart bullshit. You got your constant white flashes, freeze frames, skipped frames, dissolve edits. If there is an effect that the editing program is able to do, you bet your ass they used it multiple times in each fight. If you are gonna watch this movie just for the fights then my recommendation would be to not watch the movie at all. That having been said, you can see through the dumb bullshit enough to tell that the choreography (action director: Marcus Young, fight coordinator: Don Lee) is pretty good. It’s a heightened MMA style, based around grappling and submission holds but moving through different ones much faster and more dynamically than in a real fight to make it more cinematic.
Youngblood kept reminding me of a real young Vin Diesel, and his appeal is kinda similar. He’s a little less grunty and inarticulate, but he has kind of the same low energy type of charisma. His character is likable because he’s tough but has zero macho in him. He never gets mad at Erin or punishes her with his broodiness. When she gets mad at him for fighting her brother he doesn’t try to argue his side, he just goes and apologizes to her.
The dialogue between them is unadulterated cliche. They sit in a field under the stars talking about when I was a kid I had a map and I dreamed about traveling the world but now I’m grown up and I still live in this small town and there is no way anyone could ever guess whether I will stay in this small town at the end of the movie or if I will end up traveling the world as I always dreamed. That kinda shit. But Youngblood and Abromeit have a strong chemistry that makes up for it. They seem genuinely smitten as they nuzzle each other and flirtatiously joke.
The scene that makes up for the wet t-shirt contest is when Erin is handing Brandon tools while repairing an engine, and he’s teasing her about not knowing which is which. He tells her maybe she should make him a sandwich. She says “Yeah, I’ll make you a sandwich” and shows him a knuckle sandwich. They can make fun of traditional gender roles even if they happen to fit them. It cuts to Trejo in his wheelchair in the house watching them, grimacing. I don’t know if it’s disapproval or jealousy or what, but he can’t comprehend a male and female relationship like this where they’re happy and laughing with each other and giving each other shit.
It’s a pretty good role for Trejo, who seems tough-love-but-lovable until they get in an argument and Brandon tells him “the only thing I remember you teaching us was how to take a punch.” Ouch. Later Brandon tells Erin that when he and his brother were little his dad would make them fight each other and he’d sit and drink beer and watch them. He has every reason to never talk to his dad again, but he wants to get along with him. He’s a damn saint.
Brandon is staying with his dad. Todd makes Brandon promise not to tell anyone at work that he lives with his mom. I’m not sure where Erin lives, but she has that brother Victor who is possessive of her like an abusive boyfriend. And then there’s a scene where Victor’s in the kitchen making a protein drink and in walks his rich gambler step dad (Brett Brock, URBAN JUSTICE). Wait, why does everybody live with their parents in this movie? How young are they supposed to be playing? Balfour played a teen on the pilot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer 13 years before this movie.
So here’s this guy in his thirties beating up any man that talks to his adult sister, driving a huge Dodge pickup truck, bullying people, living at his step dad’s house and doing his bidding, and able to get away with all this because actually he’s a good fighter. That’s a good douchebag villain. That’s a guy you want to see get his face punched in at the climax. So here’s how the movie really won me over: by not doing that. When Brandon is set to fight Victor in the ring it seems one act too early. I’m thinking okay, this is a little weird, I guess Brandon’s not gonna be able to beat him and then how will he get a rematch?
But no, SPOILER, Brandon beats him fair and square. Huh. What now?
Well, at this point it’s waist deep in that love story. Erin isn’t talking to him because she doesn’t want anything to do with her boyfriend and brother beating the shit out of each other for money. So I guess it’s gonna be about how he wins her back. He knocks on her (hotel room?) door, begs to talk to her, apologizes, sweet talks her. Things are good. But there’s a knock on the door. “Are you expecting someone?” “No.”
Oh shit. Cue the dramatic music. It’s her brother. Fresh from defeat and humiliation. Comes to see his sister and she’s in the arms of the dude that just beat him up. Oh shit. This is bad.
SPOILER – except instead of getting in Brandon’s face, Victor asks to talk to his sister, and then he has a long, emotional monologue where he apologizes, tries to explain why he has treated her the way he has, and promises to try to be better. Balfour really sells it and you’re thinking wait a minute, how did this movie called BEATDOWN turn into this? Will the guys at home with the Tapout t-shirts be into this? I hope they will.
So the last act ends up being about him going back into town and making a deal with the gangster guy involving a fight and big money and what not, to try to set things straight. But we don’t know exactly what he’s up to and he seems to be just digging the hole deeper, so there’s some suspense there.
One minor thing: Erin gets kidnapped by the gangster as collateral, and the way he threatens her is very fucked up and scary. I really expected her to be pissed about what Brandon puts her through by involving her in this, but at the end she’s just happy and doesn’t even say anything about it. Kinda weird.
Rookie director Mike Gunther followed this up with SETUP, a Bruce Willis movie that I remember nothing about (I’ll have to re-read my review I guess). He mostly works in stunts (he was stunt coordinator for the FAST AND FURIOUS movie ride at Universal Studios) but got into directing by doing “Inside the Action” featurettes on movies including LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD.
Story credit goes to Patrick O’Reilly, screenplay by Bobby Mort, revised by Gunther. For Mort this is the second in a trilogy of Tapout-sponsored movies, preceded by CIRCLE OF PAIN, followed by LOCKDOWN. Then he became an Emmy-winning writer for The Colbert Report, so that’s a good resume there.
I can’t say this is a great movie, but it far exceeded my expectations. Yeah, it has some of the cheesy trappings the cover implies, but it surprised me with likable leads, efficient storytelling and unusual sincerity in its emotional parts. I liked it.