Despite the cover’s prominent display of Kimbo Slice (who appears in the film for only a matter of minutes), Circle of Pain is a definite step forward for Mixed Martial Arts films. Whereas the two previous films that I have seen could easily be described as illogical excuses to string together some pornography and fighting footage (almost the way that Ed Wood inserted long stretches of stock footage into his films), it is significantly closer than either of those films to actually feeling like a movie. That’s not to say that it’s an especially good movie, because it’s not, but it is possible to follow a narrative thread from beginning to end, even if the thread leads, predictably, to fighting.
Dalton (Tony Schiena) used to be a fighter; in fact, he used to be the best. But he’s given all of that up now, and lives the simple life working out in the country in the company of paralyzed friend Wyatt (Dean Cain), far away from the stress and danger of organized fighting. But with the arrival on the scene of Colin ‘the Brick' Wahle (Heath Herring), who promises to take the title of greatest fighter of all time, the unscrupulous RFC owner Victoria Rualan (Ling Bai) discovers that Dalton has one fight left in his contract, and wants to bring him out of retirement for a challenge match. Though Dalton is resistant at first, Colin and Victoria make it personal, so he has no choice but to take up with crusty, grizzled old trainer Willy (Louis Herthum), who promises to have him in shape for the big match. And at one point he fights Kimbo Slice for little to no reason at all.
To appreciate how this is a positive step forward for MMA movies, you first have to appreciate how bad the other ones are. In sharp contrast to previous films, which seemed to be an endless parade of wrestling arenas and high rise apartments, Circle has the good sense to open its world up a little bit to show more rural areas and open spaces, which goes a surprisingly long way in making the film more watchable. Another nice addition in the presence of, you know, actual actors. Tony Schiena, who has the unenviable task of leading this film, has a number of other film credits to his name (including a character named Johnny the Perv in The Bleeding), and doesn’t appear to have any professional background with MMA. Nor do Louis Hertham or Dean Cain, and collectively, they add what could generously be called dignity to their training scenes. At the very least, they do a passable recreation of Cinderella Man.
But then again, this is an MMA film, which will only allow the word dignity to go so far before being checked with a healthy dose of product placement, among other things. As the film is produced by TapouT, a manufacturer of fighting equipment, the TapouT logo is featured prominently throughout the film, most noticeably on the t-shirt of a man who walks up to attack Colin for no conceivable reason. And even though the level of pornography has diminished, it’s not entirely gone (there’s a pretty ridiculous lesbian kiss involving Ling), and jars the senses all the more discordantly due to its juxtaposition with supposedly heartfelt scenes that, cheesy and unconvincing as they may be, do ultimately convey what they are supposed to. And, of course, there’s the fighting, which is clearly the only reason that anybody would watch this movie. And they’re okay. In terms of skill displayed, they’re probably about on par with the fights that have been seen in previous MMA films, but, as mentioned, this film does have the slightest sense of structure, so most of these fights are at least motivated. You wouldn’t guess it from prior MMA releases, but it’s surprising what a difference that makes, even though they’re not enough to make it not an MMA film.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
The Blu-ray also contains a commentary with director Daniel Zirilli, Schiena, and stunt coordinator Arnold Chon, behind the scenes interviews with the cast and crew, fight choreography on the set, TapouT promos, and a trailer gallery.
"Circle of Pain" is on sale June 15, 2010 and is rated R. Martial-Arts. Directed by Aamir Khan, Daniel Zirilli. Written by Bobby Mort. Starring Dean Cain, Heath Herring, Kimbo Slice, Ling Bai, Louis Herthum, Tony Schiena.