The Tournament (2009) Movie Review

Scott Mann’s “The Tournament” looks and feels like an ‘90s action movie, the kind that relies on an overly simplified premise that is supposed to pass for a storyline, but is really just an excuse for a whole lot of wanton bloodshed. Mind you, not that that’s a bad thing. In this case, it just feels a little bit overdone, and after a while all the shooting, eccentric characters, and violence dulls the senses and makes you question the meaning. Naaaaaaah. Kidding, kidding. It just gets tedious after a while, that’s all, which is something you don’t want an audience to say especially when things (and people) are blowing up every other minute in your movie. In fact, if not for Robert Carlyle as a drunkard priest, the film feels more like 90 minutes of bullet squib practice for an actual movie that hasn’t been greenlit for production yet.

“The Tournament” has one of those premise that fits on a movie poster: every 7 years, in a small, clueless town somewhere in the world, 30 of the world’s best assassins are brought together to compete in a kill-or-be-killed tournament, whereby the last one standing wins a cool $10 million. Meanwhile, your usual assortment of rich fat cats bet on the game from the comforts of the tournament holder’s operation center, which in this case consists of exactly two rooms – the one where two tech guys mindlessly type on keyboards but somehow manages to run the whole show anyway, and a dark, shady looking boardroom with big screen TVs. The tournament is run by a gentleman name Powers (Liam Cunningham), a man who is apparently so rich and so well-connected that all his tournaments, and all the mayhem and death that results, are easily swept under the rug or blamed on terrorists.

The chosen location for the current game is a small, sleepy British town. Into this oblivious arena arrive our 30 contestants, with the more notable ones being Chinese hitwoman Lai Lai Zhen (Kelly Hu), the crazy Texan Miles Slade (Ian Somerhalder), the reigning champ Joshua Harlow (Ving Rhames), and an athletic parkour-powered Frenchman (Sebastien Foucan). There are, of course, 26 others, but since most of them get shot in the face, blown up, or decapitated early and often, we needn’t waste our time learning their names. Indeed, the majority of these so-called “elite assassins” have the combat skills and marksmanship of a crackwhore with a gun, and are really little more than fodder to be mindlessly killed off to increase the bodycount. The final contestant is Father Macavoy (Robert Carlyle), the town priest who finds himself pulled into the tournament when one of the contestants decides to cheat.

The set-up for “The Tournament” is, as you might imagine, one of those “just go with it” kind of deal. To do otherwise would be denying yourself some mindless bloodletting, and really, who couldn’t use a little bit of that every now and again? Even so, I found myself bored by the repetitive nature of “The Tournament”, a situation not helped by a general lack of captivating storylines. Kelly Hu’s Zhen is really the movie’s only real sympathetic character, and although Hu makes for a fine action heroine (and oh my does our gal get beaten up, tossed around, punched, kicked, and shot up), the script felt it necessary to throw a monkey wrench into our empathy by giving her quite the despicable job resume.

The film’s only other credible character is Rhames’ Harlow, the winner of the previous tournament, who has since quit the profession and is living a nice, boring life. All that gets taken away by one of the tournament’s entrants, forcing Harlow back into the game for a little vengeance. I would like to say that Rhames brings a lot to the role, but honestly, he doesn’t. Rhames also doesn’t fit the bill of the world’s greatest assassin – he’s a tad on the overweight side and his one “assassin-ish” skill seems to be getting shot and not dying. Likewise for Ian Somerhalder as the predictably silly “Texan” killer; he’s so bad, gosh darn it, he even shoots dogs! That’s when he’s not going around shouting out “Howdy” to everyone, cause you know, nothing says Texan like shouting “Howdy” and declaring how much you love killing people.

Surface-deep characters in a movie about a tournament for assassins is par for the course, so maybe I should give director Scott Mann and his writers some breathing room. After all, the whole thing is just an excuse to shoot people in the face and, when the occasion calls for it, blow them up like big globs of meat sack, right? If that’s your only criteria for a successful action movie, then Mann and company have certainly delivered. There are some nice action set pieces, most of them involving the incredibly athletic Sebastien Foucan, who literally leaps across buildings and performs some of the most ridiculously awesome feats in the entire movie. Another killer of note is rising martial arts star Scott Adkins, here playing a Russian assassin who is as good with his flying feet as he is at blowing things up. Alas, Adkins gets dispatched early in the film, his screentime limited entirely to a thrilling fight with Kelly Hu in a church.

It would be unfair to say that I was surprised “The Tournament” didn’t blow me away, even though it did do everything it could to blow everyone and everything else away onscreen. The film, and director Scott Mann, seems to have some original ideas going in, and the setup, while not novel, is a good excuse for some explosive action, which the film does deliver on a pretty consistent basis. For action junkies, the movie delivers some juicy bits, many of them absurdly over the top, which I suspect was the intention. It’s not a bad movie, as long as you know what you’re getting into. Every now and then I was expecting Jean-Claude Van Damme to show up, because this seems exactly like the kind of movie he would have made in the ‘90s – loud, excessive, and over-the-top.

Scott Mann (director) / Jonathan Frank, Nick Rowntree, Gary Young (screenplay)
CAST: Ian Somerhalder … Miles Slade
Robert Carlyle … Joseph Macavoy
Ving Rhames … Joshua Harlow
Kelly Hu … Lai Lai Zhen
Scott Adkins … Yuri Petrov
Liam Cunningham … Powers

Buy The Tournament on DVD