Director - Joseph Loop
Cast - Kellan Lutz, Samuel L. Jackson
Country of Origin - U.S.
Discs - 1
MSRP - $26.99
Distributor - Sony Pictures
Reviewer- Bobby Morgan
The Film: 3/5
Denver firefighter David Lord (Kellan Lutz) has the ideal life: a good job, his beautiful wife Lori (Nina Dobrev), and best of all he’s about to become a father. But one sunny afternoon a devastating car accident takes all that away. Racked with grief David flees to Acapulco to drown his sorrows in booze. Enticed into a grimy motel room by the alluring Milla (Katia Winter) with the promise of some much-needed sweaty sex Lord finds himself tasered and press ganged to an undisclosed location where he’s given the name Death Dealer and forced to compete into brutal hand-to-hand combat with an array of deadly opponents for the enjoyment of online viewers. Lord is reluctant to become a participant in the violent sport but when the game’s sinister organizer Logan (Samuel L. Jackson) offers to give him his freedom if he wins ten fights without getting killed Lord accepts the deal, but only on the condition that in his final fight he gets to take on Kaden (Johnny Messner) - Logan’s right-hand man best known as the Executioner. With each successive victory David becomes a hero to the home audience, something that he knows that ensures Logan will never hold up his end of the bargain. Even with the odds stacked against him this resourceful ex-Marine has a few tricks up his sleeve, or at least they would be up his sleeve if he was ever allowed to wear a shirt.
The feature directorial debut of the wonderfully named Jonah Loop, formerly a visual effects supervisor on such shining examples of cinematic artistry as League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and the Rollerball remake, Arena is one goofy fucking movie. Highly derivative, utterly brainless, but never once giving a shit about either, there are many times when Loop’s movie comes close to achieving B-movie nirvana despite traveling territory so well worn that condominiums are being built there now. The only somewhat original idea Arena contributes to the genre that has given us movies such as The Tenth Victim, The Running Man, and more recently Gamer (which is actually pretty damn good) is to present its fight scenes like live-action Mortal Kombat games complete with digitized backgrounds that place the combatants in scenarios ranging from a snowy forest during World War II to a construction site where battle is fought with nail guns. The fights are appropriately gruesome and pack serious punch but far too often Loop employs slow motion and “speed ramping” (the editing technique used extensively in fight scenes in the films of Zack Snyder) to give the bloody combat some visceral kick, but it works. Unlike its peers in the genre Arena never fully embraces the limitless satirical potential of its concept. In place of any serious or cutting insight into what compels us to enjoy the sight of our fellow human beings being forced to kill each other we get endless and repetitive scenes of frat boys and nerds in a Japanese office watching the fights and making detached comments about the action. It’s moderately funny at first, but eventually it gets tiresome and you may even miss Kellan Lutz.
Ah yes, Kellan Lutz. If there’s just one thing that keeps Arena from becoming the glorious steaming hunk of DTV guilty pleasure it was designed to be from its inception it’s the movie’s so-called “star“. Hired no doubt because his involvement with the blockbuster Twilight franchise Lutz is one of the worst actors in the business to have achieved any measure of success. There was never much to the David Lord character on paper but an actor with charm and genuine acting chops could have made something out of nothing easily. But Lutz is a dark walking void of charisma, personality, and acting ability. His idea of emoting is to scowl constantly, which coincidentally is also how he shows what a tough guy his character is. You never give a damn whether or not Lord lives to the end and that sabotages any emotional investment in the character or the brutality he must endure to survive. Only Samuel L. Jackson, who must have made major bank to headline this crap, looks like he’s having any real fun. Given free reign to shape his performance Jackson simply cuts loose and owns the screen every time he’s on. Clearly he’s not taking any of this shit seriously, which given the mediocre script by Tony Giglio and hackneyed direction was probably the one way Jackson could take this job and salvage his dignity in the process. The only other performances in Arena worth mentioning are Johnny Messner (Tears of the Sun) as the vicious Kaden and Swedish actress Katia Winter as Lord’s unexpected love interest Milla. Messner spends most of his scenes acting like he could snap a kitten’s neck in a heartbeat but it works for his overly intense character. Winter meanwhile does what she can with an erratic and poorly-written character that has her changing sides and emotions whenever it suit’s the plot and not because it’s organic to her arc. She does provide Arena with its most awe-inspiring visual: full frontal nudity. It’s always nice to see the great character actor James Remar (The Warriors) but here he only shows up in a handful of brief scenes that figure into a third-act plot twist that adds nothing to the movie. However it was rather nice for the filmmakers to throw that in towards the end because at that point a little unpredictability was welcome. But the ending just blows. It’s almost as if the production ran out of money before a crucial plot thread could be resolved, so it’s left hanging while the credits roll. God damn it to Hell. Derek Mears (Jason in the 2009 Friday the 13th remake) has a nice bit in the middle of the movie as a South African spree killer sprang from a prison bus just to give Lord a tougher opponent.
Speaking of that script, Giglio is credited as having written the movie but the credits also claim the movie is “based on the screenplay by Michael Hultquist and Robert Martinez”. Okay….what the fuck does that mean? Was this one of those Caligula situations where the original screenplay was tinkered with and screwed around with to the point where the writers threw up their hands in despair and realized that if someone has to take the blame for the final product it might as well by the hack who directed Soccer Dog: The Movie and wrote two direct-to-video sequels to Death Race. Better him than someone who might actually have a future in this sordid business.
Arena is presented in a solid 2.35: 1 anamorphic widescreen transfer awash in golden browns and deep blues and is supported by strong English and Parisian French Dolby Digital 5.1 audio tracks. Subtitles are also provided in English, English SDH, French, and Spanish.
Previews for The Caller, Retreat, Legend of the Millennium Dragon, and Attack the Block are the only extra features you’ll find here. The previews also play upfront when you first load the DVD.
I didn’t expect much from Arena except a decent blood-and-guts time waster and fortunately I wasn’t let down. The fight scenes are decently executed and Samuel L. Jackson has a blast in his villain role that it almost makes up for the talent and personality vacuum that is Kellan Lutz. Recommended for a slow Saturday night when you have a bucket of KFC and a few half-full bottles of ice beer and nothing to go with them.