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Arena
(1989)

Director: Peter Manoogian
Cast:
Paul Satterfield, Hamilton Camp, Claudia Christian


I know that I have said it before, but I think it's something that is worth saying again so you know where I am coming from. That being that while I may enjoy certain cinematic displays of athletic activity, when it comes to watching them in real life, I don't want anything to do with them. I am sure this prejudice comes from the fact that I have always been very unathletic in real life, and the humiliation I got in physical education class in school cemented my prejudice. But whatever the causes might be, I find plenty to nitpick about any real life sport. For example, take martial arts competitions. Personally, I find bouts where people are actually getting hurt to be kind of mean spirited, and the fact that the bouts are more often than not just very brief spurts of action mixed with long pauses in-between means they get boring to me really fast. So give me martial arts in movies any day of the week. Knowing that the martial arts actors in movies are (usually) not getting hurt while being filmed makes watching them more palatable. Other advantages martial arts movies have include that their fights go a lot longer and have a lot more action than bouts in real life tournaments. Also, these movies have bad guys who are more often than not depicted as getting greatly punished by being inflicted with a number of punishing blows. Seeing some evil character get punished that way usually puts me in a great frame of mind. I know that what I am seeing is a work of fiction and that real bad people are not getting punished, but knowing that there are not real life dire consequences for the good guys for beating the crap out of people doesn't throw a wet blanket on things.

However, I must emphasize that not every movie involving hand to hand combat entertains me. After seeing so many such movies, my demands are a lot greater than when I started to watch these movies so many years ago. To move me nowadays, one of these movies has to be made with extreme skill. Though even expert craftsmanship doesn't hide the fact that to me at least, I am seeing the same things over and over in these movies. What the martial arts movie genre needs is some new and fresh angles to be put in. In fact, that could be applied to any movie genre involving some kind of sport. It can be done. Let me tell you about one such movie where the sport was given a radically fresh angle, the 1991 Italian movie The Last Match, which stars Ernest Borgnine, Charles Napier, Henry Silva, and Martin Balsam. I haven't seen the movie, but I have read about it from several sources to know what it's all about. It's about an American football coach whose daughter is arrested and jailed in a third world country. The football coach and his team decide to use their football skills to rescue the coach's daughter. So the team executes a commando raid on the prison - while wearing their football uniforms - and use their football skills with modern weaponry to defeat the enemy, like when one player puts a grenade in a football and kicks it into an enemy helicopter flying overhead, blowing it up. While I hate the traditional kind of football, these reported twists to the sport in this film intrigues me enough that I have to ask just why on earth this movie hasn't been given an official video release in North America. Well, probably because reports state it's an awful movie. But even so, how could anyone not be curious about a movie with that premise?

I'll now get back to what I was talking about before, martial arts movies. As I said earlier, I am seeing the same things over and over in most new martial arts movies, and my tastes have slowly become more demanding. Maybe if I had seen Cynthia Rothrock movies such as Guardian Angel Arenaand Angel Of Fury as a child, I would have thought them to be top notch action packed movies. But having seen so many martial arts movies, I know that they are definitely sub par for the genre. But recently, I stumbled across a martial arts movie - Arena - that had advertised twists that I hadn't seen in any other martial arts movie before. Some might question if its twists make it qualify as a martial arts movie, but if real life ultimate fighting with its mixed fighting arts qualifies as a kind of martial arts display, I say that this movie does. Let me explain with a synopsis of the plot. Arena takes place in some far flung-off part of the universe hundreds of years from now. Mankind has long discovered alien life, and has discovered that while aliens may look a lot different than humans, they share similarities in their tastes for entertainment - one being the game known as "The Arena". "The Arena" consists of two different alien species duking it out in a fighting ring, but with special lights shining on the contestants to increase or decrease their strength so that they are equal in strength and must rely instead on their fighting skills to defeat their opponent. Humans are free to participate, but no human has won the championship for decades.  But that might be about to change. A lowly space station cook named Steve Armstrong (Satterfield, The Bold And The Beautiful) one day gets into a brawl in the restaurant with an alien arena fighter, and manages to defeat the alien. When Quinn (Christian, Babylon 5), the alien's manager, hears about Steve managing to defeat one of her best fighters, she approaches Steve and offers to manage him. Steve initially says no, but soon finds out he needs money not only to get back to Earth, but to pay off a mobster who is holding his best friend Shorty (Camp) for ransom. Steve eventually signs up with Quinn, and in a short time he's out in the ring punching and kicking various aliens - and does surprisingly well in the process. Eventually he is in place to fight the current top arena champion. But this doesn't please everyone, and soon there are plans to sabotage the upcoming championship bout.

Before I comment about anything else related to Arena, I feel I should mention that while I was watching the movie, every so often I would think the same particular thought in my mind - almost certainly the same particular thought you had when you read the above plot synopsis. And that particular thought happened to be, "Gee, I have seen this same basic plot a number of times before in television shows and other movies." True, those other productions didn't take place in the future with aliens, but the core of the story - a recruited newbie fighter who works his way up to a climatic (and sabotaged) championship bout - has been around since at least the 1930s. I'm sure you'll be able to predict every major plot turn long before it happens. Though as predictable as the basic plot may be, director Peter Manoogian (Eliminators) does make things somewhat less tired than usual. For starters, the feel of the story is less serious than other past takes. I'm not saying that the movie jokes around with the plot (though there is comedy relief here and there), but that there is a more relaxed feeling to what we see. This rendition feels somewhat less forced than other films using the same story. For the first third, Arena often takes its time to go from one plot turn to another, and as a result you can better believe what the various characters do. But Manoogian also knows that there is some fat to the classic story that can be easily trimmed. For example, in this version is no training montage that the hero goes through before entering his first fight; after signing up, he almost immediately goes to his first fight in the arena. And while you may think that a romance eventually blossoms between the hero and his female manager, that does not really happen at all. The two have a pretty much professional relationship instead. Not only was I thankful the movie did not bog down in sappiness, I thought this relationship was a lot more realistic.

Manoogian also shows on occasion some skill when it comes to one of the showcase features of Arena, the parts of the movie that use special effects. Now, given that this was a production bankrolled by Empire Pictures (like with his Eliminators), there are inevitably some special effects that look rather cheap; the parts of the movie showing the outside of the space station and its surroundings look crude and muddy. And some of the interiors of the space station have a cheap feeling to them, though to Manoogian's credit, he scruffs up a lot of these sets to give the feeling that this space station has been well used, and it somewhat hides some of the low budget. And Manoogian seems to have wisely reserved much of the budget for the key parts of the movie, namely the fight sequences at the space station's arena. The arena itself has the genuine feeling of being wide and filled with hundreds of spectators despite the limited funds and special effects shots; there's real atmosphere here. And there are the various aliens that our human hero has bouts with. I certainly have to admit that some of Arena's aliens really do look alien. The hero's first bout is with a gigantic creature that is simply indescribable, and later during a training session our hero works out with another massive alien. Some real care and planning was done with the creation of many of these creatures. I will admit that most of the aliens are simply human-sized with make-up all over their heads instead of something more imaginative, and that all the aliens have a rubbery appearance to their construction or make-up. But to be honest, I didn't mind these seams showing. As tacky as these aliens may appear at times, Manoogian somehow manages to make the audience accept these rubbery-looking creatures. His direction of these creatures is unpretentious, seemingly saying that he himself accepts these creations, so just sit back and accept them for yourself. I did.

As for the actual fights in Arena, I have a feeling that some viewers might be somewhat disappointed in this area. Apart from a quick montage sequence showing clips of various fights, we only get to see the human hero Steve Armstrong in two arena bouts in the entire movie. And one of those bouts is with a humanoid alien, so Armstrong fights him like a human opponent, leading to no creativity in his fighting in this particular bout. The movie could have used a few more bouts with really alien aliens. But despite this, the movie did win me over with the character of Steve Armstrong. Thanks in part due to a good performance by actor Paul Satterfield, Steve Armstrong comes across as a very likable character. He's good-natured, willing to help out a friend, and success does not spoil him. He also generates some good chemistry in his scenes with his best friend Shorty, played by actor Hamilton Camp. Camp steals the show at times in part due to his character having four arms, a feature that delivers some genuine comedy relief. However, I do think that the character of Quinn the manager is pretty wasted. Actress Claudia Christian does make this woman believable as a manager, but she doesn't get that much to do, and could have easily been written out. And the movie's chief bad guy (played by Marc Alaimo of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), this particular telling's evil mobster who attempts to sabotage the championship bout, has some icy presence, but doesn't come across quite as ruthless as this particular role demands. As you can see from all that I've told you, Arena is far from a perfect movie. But it executes an old formula well enough to be watchable, with either the right respectful tone or with a touch that's offbeat enough that it keeps you watching, even though you'll have a pretty good idea what will happen in its core before it actually does.

(Posted September 12, 2018)

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)

See also: Expect No Mercy, King Of The Kickboxers, Star Kid

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