Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Review - no-budget no-brainer 'Circle of Pain'

A once great fighter, having turned his back on his old life following a personal tragedy, finds himself with no choice but to return for one last fight. Whilst the former fighter is a man of honour, the new champ he must face is a ruthless, arrogant and without principle. Under the tutelage of a philosophical coach with unconventional methods, the fighter must rebuild his strength and skill, but most importantly find the will to fight again, and in so doing regain his self-respect, and win back the heart of the wife he almost lost.

It's a familiar tale. Only this time it's set in the realm of mixed martial arts. And done on what looks to be a very, very low budget. With Dean Cain in a wheelchair saying "fuck" a lot.

I try not to judge a low-budget direct-to-DVD movie by its cover, I really do. For filmmakers to have limited resources at their disposal does not automatically mean the end product will be of a lower artistic merit. But in my experience it very often suggests that the film will leave a great deal to be desired in terms of aesthetics, performance, writing, and pretty much everything else with the exception of gratuitous sex and violence.

And guess what - Circle of Pain ticks all the boxes. It may not be the most inept fight film I've ever seen - that distinction must go to the (shudder at their name) Brain Damage Films release, Fist of the Vampire (click title for my review) - but this is still an utterly, utterly stupid movie, with a flimsy and derivative script, feeble central performances, and often painfully amateurish camerawork and editing. It's the kind of film where you can accurately predict exactly what's going to happen from moment to moment, and the only surprises come from the many various ways in which the key players fail to make it work dramatically.

But then... there's plenty to be said for movies so unrelentingly bad that you can't help but laugh. And obviously no-one involved thinks they're filming Ibsen. As cheap and tacky goes, Circle of Pain is at least good for a few shits and giggles.

Take leading man Tony Schiena (pictured left - and yes, he is most definitely the lead, not big beardy guy Kimbo Slice as the cover art would seem to suggest. Shocking, I know. Misleading DVD covers suggesting something that barely resembles the actual movie? Whatever next?) I see from the press release that Schiena's a World Karate Champion, which certainly explains a bit as one would be most shocked if he'd been hired for his acting ability. Well, that's not entirely fair - action stars have never been made on the basis of being talented, versatile performers. They succeed based on charisma. And this guy has none. The character's a cardboard cut-out, the actor's a cardboard cut-out, all of which highlights what a cardboard cut-out of a movie this is.

But then, goodies rarely get the sweet end of the lollypop. It's always the villains who have the most fun. Circle of Pain honours this tradition via two fight film archetypes: the aforementioned ruthless new champ, and the shady promoter. Now, the champ as played by UFC veteran Heath Herring is pretty textbook - mohawk, bad attitude, up to his thick neck in babes and money - but the real big bad here is the president of the RFC (Revolution Fight Club, if I recall correctly - therefore nothing whatsoever like the Ultimate Fighting Championship, obviously. Ahem), played by Bai Ling. Tick one box for direct-to-DVD standards: the presence of at least one vaguely reputable star who's either slumming it or really needs the work that badly. Along with the aforementioned Mr Cain, whose supporting role consists of being in a wheelchair and saying "fuck" a lot. I think I already mentioned that.

Now, I hope I'll be forgiven for saying that my first thought whenever I see Bai Ling of late is "mother of god, are you ill, woman?" I don't wish to be all objectifying and judgemental about female body shapes; my colleague Britt Hayes recently spoke out against this in the reaction to the first photos of Rooney Mara in the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo remake, and I agree with her overall sentiment. But what can I say: such skinny female forms tend not to please my eye, and more often than not make me fear for the health of the woman in question. This is particularly true in such a case as Bai Ling, who was once more full-figured and hence, to my tastes at least, more attractive; her then-voluptuous physique stirred a strong reaction in my adolescent self in The Crow. (We might add that Rooney Mara has lost weight specifically for the role, whereas this is just what Bai Ling looks like these days.) But putting such concerns aside, Ling gives perhaps the most entertaining performance in the film, oozing evil from start to finish and appearing to have a great time doing so. She's such a supervillian, she wouldn't appear out of place in a Bond movie, although in those she wouldn't be able to scream "SHUT FUCK UP LOSERS!" at the fight audience.

A Bond film also wouldn't allow Bai Ling to to have sex scenes that are pretty much soft porn, including a girl-on-girl smooch and a spot of rough and tumble with the bad boy champ. Circle of Pain has more than a few such scenes with a number of different ladies (some of whom are clearly surgically enhanced), presumably to counterbalance the innumerable sights of sweaty bare-chested men and make the heterosexual male audience feel a bit more secure. It's no surprise that these occasional laspes into pornsville are extremely unconvincing; for, after all, much the same can be said of the fight scenes. They play out like a variation on the kung fu fight scenes of old, but instead of the assailants declaring "your tiger style is weak, and no match for my dragon crane!" they know say "yo, you fight like a bitch, pussy!" Be they set in the octagon (where they utterly fail to convince us we're witnessing a spectacle on a par with a UFC event) or out on the street, there's never any question that what we are seeing is staged. Yes, a lot of these performers are genuine mixed martial artists, and I'm not about to suggest that they don't know what they're doing. But there's a big difference between genuine fighting and choreographed fighting, and though they may be real fighters they largely fail to make it look real here. In fairness, though, the lion's share of the blame for this has to land on the shoulders of director Daniel Zirilli. A good action director knows how to position the camera and time the edits in a manner that makes it look real. Zirilli doesn't.

This highlights the overriding problem that films like Circle of Pain face: as the clear intended audience is MMA fans, why would they watch a movie about it when they can just watch actual MMA? In the kung fu movies of old, and to an extent the kickboxing films of the 80s, the audience was being given something it couldn't find elsewhere; but in this age of digital television and internet with the UFC broadcast worldwide, geniune MMA fights are readily available. What does an MMA movie need to provide for its would-be audience, then; what is it that real MMA fights do not provide? Well, brace yourselves for this, but... it doesn't hurt to have a good story. And good performances. And halfway decent dialogue. You know, movie stuff. David Mamet's marvellous and terribly underseen/underrated jiu-jitsu flick Redbelt has all that in spades. Circle of Pain... not so much. But hey, whatever gets you through a six-pack and a curry on a Friday night in.

Circle of Pain will be released to Region 2 DVD on 24th January 2011, from Chelsea Films.

1 comment:

  1. This was ridiculous but fun at the same time. Here is our review: