For approximately five years, Hector Echavarria has been the premier producer of direct-to-video mixed martial arts action movies. In early 2000s, the kickboxer-turned-actor seemed primed to become more of a Van Damme-style karate star before inexplicably turning to onscreen cage fighting, tapping just about every major pro competitor for major and minor supporting roles in the process. Largely, MMA fans have been unappreciative of these offerings, though I personally was surprised by this particular movie's quality. "Unrivaled" is still a far cry from what I would consider a good time, though the upbeat tone and utilization of the costars are worthy of recognition.
The story: a broken down fighter (Echavarria) is inexplicably entered into a professional draft to determine a world champion, but his pursuit to glory is tainted by personal animosities and corruption of the promoters.
Is it just me, or could this same movie have been made in the 80s? Despite its occasionally dark subject matters, "Unrivaled" channels a relentlessly optimistic, Rocky-esque attitude. Right down to the inspirational training montage and upbeat pop soundtrack (I'm surprised it never got an album release), the movie boasts a buoyancy that's corny enough to alienate some serious-minded viewers, though I personally prefer the bouncy mood to the dankness of something like Echavarria's Never Surrender. The drama angle is really forced, and the inclusion of the protagonist's fanboy-sidekick (Steven Yaffee, Growing Op) is a really questionable choice on the part of the writers, but in the end, it's nice to watch a naïve, positive fight flick again.
Speaking fights, this one's cast of professionals includes UFC stars Keith Jardine, Rashad Evans, Forrest Griffin, and Nathan Marquardt, and of the nine fights in the movie, each of them takes part in at least one. None of the fights are short - the Echavarria vs. Evans finale is a surprising 10 minutes long - so if you want to see your MMA favorites doing battle in a movie, this is an ample opportunity for it. However, you'll probably be disappointed that very few of the fights are all that good. This is a recurring problem with Echavarria's MMA movies: with the possible exception of one brawl, every match on here is mucked about with slow motion and excessive cutting. The editors' rules of thumb must have been to slo-mo every third shot in a fight scene and have no shot at all last longer than 1.5 seconds. On the slightly brighter side, there's more striking and less rolling around on the ground to the choreography than I had expected, and Echavarria himself is without a doubt more physical and game to fighting than Van Damme, Seagal, and Lundgren have been in years.
Production values are strong, with surprisingly pretty cinematography and an attractive color scheme. Though no less attractive, the amount of naked women in the movie is a bit extreme: after you've encountered full frontal nudity in the first 15 minutes, why even bother with lesser strip shows and sex scenes? The rest of the film is like this, evenly matching its pros with cons but at least managing to surpass the quality of the previous cage fighting movies Echavarria has made. Time will tell whether he is able to build on this with his upcoming Chavez: Cage of Glory, but as things are, you could definitely do worse when it comes to MMA flicks. If you prefer more traditional karate and kickboxing movies, however, you'll have no problem finding superior action fare.