20th July 2020 (UK VOD Premiere)
American Fighter follows desperate teenager Ali Jahani who escapes Iran after the hostage crisis and fights his way through the dangerous world of underground fighting to win money to save his ailing mother. He finds out what he's made of in the face of these violent hungry competitors.
Shaun Paul Piccinino
Tommy Flanagan, Sean Patrick Flanery, Christina Moore
Sent to the US from Tehran on a college Wrestling scholarship, Ali is looking forward to a visit from his parents. But when their flight is hijacked just before take-off resulting in the execution of his father and his mother being taken hostage, Ali desperately tries to raise money to free her. When Ali displays some impressive striking against a particularly racist opponent in College Wrestling practice, his roommate and friend suggests for Ali to take part in underground fighting bouts. But with a greedy promoter who’s more interested in the big bets than the welfare of the fighters, it’s only a matter of time before Ali’s beginner luck runs out.
Taking place in 1981, American Fighter wastes little time in pummelling us with signals of its time period. Rick Springfield’s power pop hit Jessie’s Girl blares on the soundtrack and college girls are draped in blinding neon gym wear. The entire film feels like it’s taken a template from sports movies released in that decade. Training montages? Check. Accompanying solos and electronic drum beat? Check. Silhouetted punch/kick routines in the dusk with his coach who, naturally, used to be the best in the biz only to have his dream snatched away? Check. American Fighter would be a perfect inclusion -albeit the weakest of the bunch – in a movie marathon with the likes of Karate Kid, Rocky (I know, I know, that was 1976. It’s still the undisputed sports movie champion though) and Van Damme’s Bloodsport.
Its script, as well-intentioned as it may be, makes an effort to tackle difficult subject matter such setting the stakes to the very real conflict between Iraq and Iran as well as the prejudices Ali faces being an immigrant. It’s as subtle as a knee to the nose though, cramming in as many uncomfortably racist slurs as possible from intolerant jocks. These verbal jabs clearly add fuel to Ali’s fire, so in the end are somewhat necessary, but the topic is as discarded as quickly it arrives, with Ali’s love interest even trying to dismiss it as being outdated for 1981. Sadly, this wasn’t (and still isn’t) the case.
Speaking of Ali, George Kosturos is an underdog that’s easy to put your money on to win your heart. Sure, his chiselled body looks like a museum piece, but his meek nature means there’s always a danger of him losing. When it comes to the final showdown between the infinitely more powerful, straight from a Beat-Em-Up videogame character Bas, I found myself rooting for Ali just as much as those in the audience baying for bloodshed. Tommy Flanagan is suitably shady as McClellen, the big draw driven promoter of underground fights, with Sean Patrick Flanerys Duke proving to be a worthy yet troubled tutor for Ali.
His sweetheart Heidi is excitably played by Allison Paige, although her eventual support for his illicit brawls is a little confusing, given what he’s actually doing. I did enjoy and fully buy into the strong friendship shown by fellow fighter Ryan (Bryan Craig) and it was a relief to see the story not go down the typical friend-vs-friend route. The fights themselves are relatively brief (save for the last encounter) but realistic enough to produce a few winces at a couple of the shots.
Great performances from all
Final fight is built up well
80's feel could be seen as a good or bad thing depending on taste
Some pacing issues in the third act