Dillon (Wes Chatham) has just been paroled after a 10-year stretch for accidentally killing someone during an altercation outside a shop. Although Dillon wants to keep his nose clean, his friend Jake (Devon Sawa) has got himself well over his head in gambling debts and local crooks want their money or his head. It turns out Dillon was a champion wrestler at college and so under the tutelage of former cage-fighting maestro LA Jim, he steps into the ring to save his friend’s life and maybe earn himself a fresh start into the bargain.
Cage fighting, UFC or MMA is pretty hot right now. Last year’s Warrior showed just how exceptional a film could be built around it and we’ll see with Kevin James’ “Here Comes The Boom” whether it’s ripe for comedy gold as well. What director Jason Connery has built here though, is an unexceptional, simple, but engaging drama around the world of cage fighting, with some decent acting performances, well-shot fight sequences and despite very few narrative surprises, a compelling enough story.
The prologue shows just how easily a simple attempted mugging can escalate into tragedy and also helps set up the antagonism between Dillon and a slimy, grimy cop (Chris Browning) who tracks Dillon down, blaming him for the death of his partner who was shot when bullets started flying during the climax to the mugging. There is a coherence and logic to the plot and the way in which Dillon is drawn into the ring hangs together well. Legitimate MMA fighters were used for all of the bouts and plenty of care was taken by Connery in selecting cameras and shots so as to give the fighting a sense of realism without slipping into wobble-cam cliché.
One criticism is that the story and character development are given too little room to breathe. We get to know a little of the principals and they are far from one-dimensional, but too often the film feels like it is rushing along when it would benefit from pausing for a beat, allowing us to invest in the characters a little more. The net effect is that the conclusion feels obvious, unsurprising and hurried instead of thrilling and cathartic. Comparisons to Warrior are obvious, inevitable and unfair, given the calibre of actors involved in that rightly lauded film, but The Philly Kid (aside from that terrible title) deserves some attention and success, despite its flaws.
Despite its modest budget and truncated shooting schedule, The Philly Kid just about gets us to care what becomes of Dillon, LA Jim and Jake, though a more charismatic actor in the title role would have been of significant help in that regard. Sawa succeeds in making Jake a believable and even occasionally sympathetic character, despite his annoying tendency to create problems for those around him due to his stupidity. You can kind of see where all of this is going from pretty early on, but that’s not always a bad thing and although this film sits in the shadow of some illustrious forebears, it’s still worth checking out. It’s available to buy on Bluray and DVD from Monday.