If you’re a fan of either family or sports dramas, Embattled might be the film for you. Making his English-language film debut, Nick Sarkisov directs from a script penned by American History X writer David McKenna that centers on father and son MMA fighters. Stephen Dorff plays the former, a character called Cash, who is a world champion fighter with 37 wins to his name and only one loss. His 18-year-old son Jett (Darren Mann) is an up-and-comer with just three fights under his belt. The relationship between the two is complicated because of Cash’s abusive nature as a father, and their tension eventually leads to a widely-publicized match between father and son. We won’t give away the ending, but keep reading for a review of how Dorff and Mann did in their complex leading roles.
Many may know the industry veteran from his role as Deacon Frost in Blade, meaning that the actor is no stranger to playing villains. It’s a good thing, because Cash is certainly not a hero in Embattled. At different points in the film and through flashbacks, we see him hit his ex-wife, choke his current wife, and slap around a young Jett. These acts of violence against those physically weaker than him may make us dislike Cash, but Dorff creates a more complex character than just a one-note “bad guy.” We find out that Cash is also the victim of an abusive father, and the actor’s nuanced portrayal of the role allows us to see a person locked in a cycle of abuse. Dorff delivers a complex, layered performance as a man who throws out homophobic slurs at an alarming rate, has a list of rules for how to get away with drinking and driving, and who owns a t-shirt that reads, “I f–k on the first date.” We are not meant to like Cash, but Dorff finds the humanity in an incredibly lost character.
You may know the relative newcomer from his recurring role as Luke Chalfant on the Kiernan Shipka-led Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. And if Mann’s performance in Embattled is any indication, you’ll be seeing a lot more of the budding star moving forward. Many actors have a hard time playing characters younger than themselves, but Mann is believable as a high school senior while also bringing depth to the role. Jett is getting pulled in all different directions as he tries to balance school with supporting his mom and helping parent his younger brother Quinn, who has Williams Syndrome. At the same time, Cash is exposing Jett to the party lifestyle of the rich and famous, as well as coaching him in the ring. It’s a lot for a high schooler to handle, but Mann believably navigates Jett through all the hurdles and family dysfunction he faces. The actor radiates a certain goodness in the role that is displayed whenever he’s caring for Quinn. Jett has essentially become the father figure in their relationship, and Mann’s performance is a brilliant foil to Dorff’s Cash. The thespian’s grounded and emotionally available work is one you will remember long after the credits roll.
The film also includes names like Elizabeth Reaser and Donald Faison. And keep an eye out for Colin McKenna, who is the real-life son of the film’s writer and was born with the same genetic condition as his character Quinn. The actor delivers a strong performance, and the casting choice demonstrates inclusivity and authenticity in casting characters with disabilities. You can see all the listed performances and more on November 20 when Embattled releases in theaters and on demand.