Fantasia 2019 Review: AMERICAN FIGHTER Puts a Different Face to The 80s Style Fighting Genre
The year is 1981. Ali is a student from Iran attending university on a foreign scholarship. The war between Iran and Iraq is early into their years long conflict and Ali's parents are try to flee Iran and get his mom to America for medical treatment. They are pulled from the plane at the last minute and Ali has to find a large sum of money quickly or she will not survive the war-torn conditions. Ali enters into the dangerous world of underground fighting to win enough fast money to save her. Fast money may come easy but it comes at a cost.
American Fighter follows the tropes of the 80s fighting genre. Watch as Ali finds immediate success in fighting, the money starts rolling in and he starts working towards saving up the large sum that will get his mom out of Iran. Watch as it turns out Ali is pretty good with a minimal learning curve, and has a great streak going that sets him up for inevitable double cross.
Director Shaun Paul Piccinino also has a lengthy background in stunt work and coordination so it shows in his work and that of the fighting team. The fight scenes are okay. They are competantly staged and captured on film. The camera shares time inside the ring with the fighters and circling outside the crowd, looking past them to capture all that energy in the room. Few things are worse than staged shots of a cheering crowd that you know are staring at an empty ring. You lose some of that fighting when the camera is on the outside though. As far as staged fighting goes the level and competency is up there.
American Fighter will not be a calling card for actor George Kosturos as an action star in the way that films like Ong-bak announced Tony Jaa or The Raid announced Iko Uwais. By keeping the fight level down to that of common street fighting there are no real explosive or signature moments here. There are no wow moments that tell us that these are people to keep an eye on.
Seasoned actor Sean Patrick Flannery is a contemporary Mister Miagi. Though he may be a weathered and beaten version of the genre's trope, he is the experienced fighter who takes Ali under his broken wing before the climactic fight. Flannery's work on screen as the grizzled fighting vetern is the best attempt at a soul in the film.
Because every plot point plays to type it is hard not to predict what happens next and skirt over them as nothing but devices to keep the story moving along. For example, the romance between Ali and Heidi is fleeting at best. Since we are going back to that 80s fighting genre and 1984's The Karate Kid has been on my mind the romance betwen Ali and Heidi is nothing like that of Ralph Macchio and Elizabeth Shue in The Karate Kid. Still, I see your Heidi run out onto the ring after Ali wins the big fight like Shue did to Macchio back in 1984, Mr. Piccinino.
So what does American Fighter do different if it feels very familiar to that decades old Friday Night Straight to Video genre? It adds a compassionate face to an underrepresented and misrepresented people through Ali and his family. Turns out American Fighter is also terribly poignant under the gloom of a world leader picking a fight with that region now. For this it needs to be recognized, because the age-old genre was by and large a soapbox for the American Empire during the height of the Cold War.
American Fighter takes someone that people want to see as the enemy and turns them into the hero.