I first encountered the cinematic oeuvre of Gary Daniels on a particularly late night, in my parents’ living room, flicking through the channel after channel of Skinemax sex thrillers looking for something halfway decent. It was at this point that I chanced upon an obscure action thriller called Bloodmoon. In that film, Gary Daniels played a forensic psychologist on the trail of a serial killer who only targeted champion fighters. The plot was laughable, the acting moreso, and yet Bloodmoon captured my attention because despite its obvious failings, the action sequences were stunningly choreographed even by my already vaunted standards. I soon discovered that Gary Daniels had dozens of movie credits to his name, and although he was probably never bound for Oscar glory, his obvious joy at plying his craft onscreen and his even more obvious talent for imbuing his fights with a believable, exciting exaggeration led me to seek out his many film appearances. Many of those films, like the Jackie Chan comedy City Hunter, the Sugar Ray Leonard team-up Riot and the unbelievably absurd Full Impact, did not disappoint.
This week, my longstanding appreciation of Gary Daniels’ body of work has hit an interesting culmination with Forced to Fight, a melodramatic underground fighting tournament movie that gives Gary Daniels the best role of his career, but is somewhat disappointing as an action thriller. In the Forced to Fight, Daniels plays Shane, a former tournament fighter who has retired, opened up on an auto body shop and settled down happily with his wife and young son. His brother Scotty, played by an especially charismatic Arkie Reece, stayed behind in the fighting scene, and after refusing to throw a match for his shady promoter, Danny G. (Robocop’s Peter Weller), Scotty winds up in the hospital. And so Shane is forced back into the ring to cover Scotty’s debts, but the fighting world isn’t the same as when he left it, and our hero is unprepared for the onslaught of physical punishment and moral compromise that awaits him.
This is not, it must be said, a terribly original concept. But Forced to Fight, directed and co-written by Jonas Quastel (along with Andrew Bronstein, working from a story by Patrick Dussault), takes a somewhat different approach to these familiar genre trappings. Unlike most movie heroes forced into similar situations, Shane actually resents the hell out of it. He’s pissed off that his brother’s irresponsibility has now required him to endanger himself and his family just to get an irresponsible layabout out of hot water, and that, combined with the intense psychological focus necessary to train hard enough to actually win enough fights and earn his family’s freedom, turns Shane into, let’s not mince words a total bastard. His cause is noble, but his way of dealing with his unreasonable circumstances is disturbing, and has serious consequences for the people he cares about. Rarely has an action hero actually suffered on this personal a level from an action movie’s inciting incident, beyond formulaic “you killed my so-and-so and now I’m upset” storylines.
And while the actual dialogue in Forced to Fight leaves these machinations feeling blunt, at best, it’s refreshing to see an otherwise familiar fight movie attempt originality beyond merely making its fight sequences look cool. So it is especially disappointing that the fight sequences we do get in Forced to Fight are subpar for by Gary Daniels movie standards. Daniels, still in amazing shape but nevertheless pushing 50, may or may not be willing to do some of the more impressive physical feats at this point in his career, but even so the choppy editing and often lackluster choreography does Forced to Fight a major disservice.
Strong plotting, a memorable villain thanks to the scenery-chewing Peter Weller, and perhaps the most interesting character of Daniels’ career are nearly undone by the merely mediocre action sequences in Forced to Fight, although Quastel does, to his credit, save the best for last in a climactic gauntlet of punishment laid down on his hero, fittingly challenged in his quest for redemption. It would work better if Shane had had to develop more clearly as a fighter throughout the course of the film. He’s repeatedly informed that he’ll need to learn modern MMA techniques in order to be competitive, but he never seems to embrace them and evolve. Perhaps that could have been the point, that Shane’s journey was right back to the peaceful place where he started, and that the cycle of violence needed to revert back to the “stand up fights” to which our hero was originally accustomed. But instead – like most American fight movies – the hero’s personal journey isn’t adequately mirrored by his competitive one, and so the action in this supposedly “action movie” never lives up to the ambitions of its soap operatic but involving screenplay.
Forced to Fight is by no means a subtle film. It’s a punch to the face in cinematic form. But for fans of straight-to-video quality action cinema, it’s an unusually potent movie whose dramatic ambitions sometimes outweigh its ability to convey them properly. Gary Daniels does at least finally have something compelling to work with outside of his action choreography, and he does a good job making the most of it, although he still won’t be giving Daniel Day-Lewis a run for his money at the awards ceremonies this year.
Forced to Fight is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. I suspect it may not be the absolute best introduction to the work of Gary Daniels, in that you will likely enjoy it (provided straight-to-video action is your bag in the first place) but may not be inspired to seek out his other work. Anyone who’s experienced the joys of White Tiger will appreciate that this is a major step forward in the quality of Gary Daniels’ work, dramatically at least, even though it never reaches the high-flying macho zeniths of some of his previous movies.