The Illegal Tournament Fighting movie is an old staple (and favorite) of ’80s and ’90 B movies for two very reasons: it’s cheap to make, and you don’t have to justify any of your action scenes. It’s a movie about people fighting, so whenever there’s a lull in the narrative, all the director needs to do is cut to another fight in the film’s fictional arena of choice. Voila! Instant action to break the tedium of all that “story” stuff. Despite the popularity of the genre with undiscriminating action fans and cheapskate movie producers, it seemed as if the genre was on life support by the turn of the millennium. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that about the same time hospital staffers were about to pull the plug on the genre, we were also seeing the dramatic decline of the men who once made the genre popular to begin with. (Jean Claude Van Damme basically built his entire career out of doing the same movie over and over.)
Curiously, recent years have seen a re-emergence of the genre, and not just within the ranks of the American B movie world. Most recently there was “The Eliminator”, a Tournament Fighting movie set on an island; the Japanese “Muscle Heat”, set in the future; the Koreans got into the groove with “Clementine”, an unremarkable movie that happened to remarkably feature Steven Seagal in what amounted to a glorified cameo; and the Thais offered up their own brand of clich’d Tournament Fighting with “Ong Bak”. Compared to the others, Jesse Johnson’s “Pit Fighter” is a throwback to the heyday of the genre, back when story meant little, and it was all about how much random acts of violence the filmmakers could throw on the screen to keep the audience from running out and grabbing the latest Tournament Fighting movie by Lorenzo Lamas or Gary Daniels.
“Pit Fighter” is the story of Jack (Dominique Vandenberg), an amnesiac up to his ears in illegal fighting in a small, nondescript Mexican town. Through flashbacks, we learn that it’s been 5 years since Jack showed up at hustler Steven Bauer’s doorsteps, all shot up and thanks to a bullet to the head, with no memory of who he is, or was. Bauer introduces Jack to the joy of illegal fights, where Jack proves to be quite adapt at busting heads, eyeballs, and anything else presented before him to bust. Alas, Jack and Bauer are forced to work the fights at the pleasure of a local kingpin who, inevitably, is destined to ask Jack to throw a fight. (This particular plot device appears in just about every single Tournament Fighting movie ever made, so it’s not much of a spoiler.)
But if Jack used to be some kind of super badass proficient in fighting and killing (as his nightmares and flashbacks would seem to suggest), then catching a bullet to the head has ushered forth a changed man. Jack now lives at the local mission, gives all his winnings to the good people there, and spends his time hanging out with buddy Manolo (Bauer), blissfully contemplating a woman name Marianne, whose name is tattooed on his chest. Who is Marianne, and why does Jack keep having nightmares of bloody executions and shootouts? The answer begins to come when, one night, Jack spots Marianne arriving in town…
There are parts of “Pit Fighter” where you can see that writer/director Jesse Johnson is making an effort to do something other than the usual B action movie. Alas, effort does not always equal success, and Johnson succeeds only partially, mostly in the film’s first half, and in the slow, gradual reveal of the Jack character. Most problematic are the film’s later stages, which are rife with poor evolution and a general disregard for logical narrative flow.
As the film lumbers along towards its hour mark (the film runs barley 80 minutes), it becomes increasingly obvious that Johnson has written himself into a corner, which may account for one of the most over-the-top climactic action scene in cinematic history. To paraphrase Quentin Tarantino, the finale involves Jack slaughtering half of Mexico, then going next door and slaughtering half of a neighboring country’s populace for good measure. For a film that’s taken such great pains to invent the main character, the finale is a major disappointment. It’s akin to watching a David Mamet film, when suddenly someone pops in a Michael Bay movie.
For action fans, “Pit Fighter” has plenty to chew on. As inherent in all Tournament Fighting movies, there’s about one fight every other minute, so it’s a good bet no one will be bored. Unless you’re the discriminating type, of course, in which case you may notice that the fights are indistinguishable from one another, and a general feeling of pointless repetition may quickly set in. The action is shot with an eye towards being gritty and brutal, and the fighters are often left covered in blood, especially Jack, who can’t seem to go more than 2 minutes without getting doused with stage blood. It’s a little much, and after a while all the gratuitous bloodletting gets to be extremely silly.
Because the fights all involve Jack as an active participant, “Pit Fighter” gives us more than a good view of star Dominique Vandenberg’s fighting prowess. To be sure, the man is certainly very capable, and shows a terrific knowledge of multiple forms of martial arts. Through it all, Vandenberg handles the hefty load of action scenes with great ability. But while casting Vandenberg was a good decision from an action standpoint, it puts more than a little crimp in Johnson’s script. The film is replete with talk about Jack being a “gringo” (that is, a Caucasian) lost in Mexico, but here’s the kicker: Vandenberg doesn’t look Caucasian at all. I don’t mean Vandenberg looks a little bit Caucasian, I mean he doesn’t look Caucasian in the slightest. Johnson could have fixed this by tweaking the script a bit, but for whatever reason, he didn’t.
If all you were looking for was an action fix, you could certainly do worst than “Pit Fighter”. For the dedicated B movie lover, Jesse Johnson’s film is a slightly above average entry, providing plenty of blood, death, and action. Leading man Dominique Vandenberg is a serviceable hero, and the script by Johnson has some good moments. Unfortunately the movie undermines itself with a ludicrous ending and not enough good ideas to go along with the few good ones. The second half, in particular, goes absolutely nowhere.
Jesse Johnson (director) / Jesse Johnson (screenplay)
CAST: Dominique Vandenberg …. Jack
Steven Bauer …. Manolo
Stephen Graham …. Harry
Stana Katic …. Marianne
Fernando Carrillo …. Veneno
Giancarlo Valentino …. Carlos