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American Fighter
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by Jay Seaver

"Good clean underground cage fighting."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "American Wrestler" is, I'm told, a more or less autobiographical story of an immigrant who came to America in the 1970s and integrated through sports, but this sequel isn't what happened next. It's what could have happened, if things had gone a bit differently, and for all that this particular alternate history is capably produced and enjoyable enough if you go for this particular genre, I kind of wonder why you'd stay so close to such a standard template if free to make up a whole new set of circumstances.

It picks up the story of Ali "Al" Jahani (George Kosturos) some time after the first film, now a freshman at Northeastern California University, looking to prove himself on a new wrestling team. He's got more to worry about than most of his teammates; though he has spent the last few years in California with his Uncle Hafez, his parents were just leaving Iran when they were taken off the plane and his father shot. A guy Hafez knows says he can get his ailing mother to America, but it will cost $30,000, an amount that seems impossible for them to raise. Ali's teammate Ryan (Bryan Craig) may know a way, though - there's a guy, McClellen (Tommy Flanagan) who runs underground fight clubs, and though this is the sort of thing that gets you booted off the team if anyone finds out and even cutman Duke (Sean Patrick Flannery) says not to trust the guy, what other options are there?

There is, I suppose, some impressive craft in how everything fits together smoothly enough to have come out of a particularly well-calibrated machine: Yes, there's a super-likable roommate who has an uncle who is just the right amount of shady to be running underground fighting matches, employing a cut-man who is just the right amount of disillusioned but sympathetic, but director Shaun Paul Piccinino and co-writer Carl Morris are good at presenting this sequence as the natural order of things rather than something that should shock viewers who have, more than likely, been watching movies like this since its early-1980s setting. The betrayal comes at the exact moment you expect, and that's the point at which things get a little more strained, as school almost vanishes and the scale of McClellen's operation becomes fuzzier. There are girlfriends who serve little purpose other than making sure one doesn't read too much into how readily Ali's friend is putting his body and place at school on the line for him and some of the most polite and downright apologetic coyotes you'll ever meet.

But, as these things go, it's not bad. It's the sort of story that needs certain characters to become more optimistic faster than other become more cynical, and the cast is by and large up for that, managing to ingratiate themselves with the audience and sell the script's tendency toward the simple as people not being that complicated. George Kosturos, for instance, doesn't have a chance to make Al particularly complex, but he's got a good handle on where the line between him being naive and dumb is and captures the odd incongruity of someone trying to feels overwhelmed despite already having endured much and having the physique of someone more mature. Sean Patrick Flannery and Tommy Flanagan play some very familiar types in the disillusioned trainer and the conniving ringleader, but they're committed enough to make even the most rote parts of the story work.

The fighting smartly reflects that too, with early fights not exactly sloppy but reflecting how a guy who knows a thing or two can get by on that when the opposition isn't that sophisticated, then upgrading things just enough for the finale that it never gets too smooth for an underground-fight-club movie but let's the audience see what Ali has learned. It's kind of an oddly-positioned movie - the producers want to make uplifting, good-hearted material but don't mind including enough violence to get rated R - and sometimes its sincerity means trying to present things as messy and disreputable without ever making anyone in the audience uncomfortable.

There are audiences that want shades of grey without ever having to feel like they're watching something less than wholesome, though, and "American Fighter" hits that target roughly as well as a movie can.

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originally posted: 10/17/19 03:55:48
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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