The tropes of the big screen boxing drama were basically chiseled in stone in the Hollywood of the 1930s and ’40s, set up and recycled — with some variations — by “The Champ” and “Golden Boy” and “Body and Soul,” and repeated ever since.
“American Fighter” is built on those traditions, a “tough kid” with “big obstacles” to overcome if he wants to win the “big rematch” and solve his “big problem.”
Except this kid is named “Ali.” He’s a Persian immigrant in 1981 America, college wrestler tough, but with bigotry and hustlers surrounding him everywhere he goes and a sickly mother back in Tehran who needs American medical attention to survive.
His dad? He was executed on the tarmac before the parents could fly out.
George Kosturos (“A California Christmas,” “The Ride”) steps into the spotlight here, playing a fighter who could only exist in B-movies. He learns “underground” no-holds-barred fighting on the fly, punches way above his weight or the laws of physics, lands scores of knuckle-breaking haymakers and endures just as many as he scrambles to raise the cash to smuggle his mom out of Revolutionary Iran.
He’s scored a back-door college wrestling scholarship on the West Coast, but privileged or not, he doesn’t have the cash or the means of making it to save his mother.
Until his wrestling buddy (Bryan Craig) notes how Ali handles one racist “camel jockey” (and worse) insult too many from their teammates.
“That punch you threw in practice, you think you could do that again?”
Ryan is thus Ali’s entre to the underground fight scene of Northern California, booked and gambled-on 15 minute bouts staged in basements, hay lofts and the like for a few hundred bucks a throw.
Tommy Flanagan (“Sons of Anarchy,” “Braveheart”) is the ever-so-Irish promoter/profiteer who smells money in people betting against the hated “Muslim.” Sean Patrick Flannery (“Dexter,” “Assault on VA-33”) is the sage and boozy trainer the kid won’t give the time of day to, until he figures out he’s in over his head.
And Allison Paige plays the cute coed who digs Ali’s curly locks and exotic accent.
There’s a whiff of “Hallmark movie” to this brute brawl of a drama. Outside of the ring, it’s chaste and downright cheesy — a roller rink date, Mom’s worries in Iran, the fatherly way Flanery’s Duke sobers up just enough to teach “the kid” a thing of two.
“It’s the land of opportunity, kid. And yours is just inside that ring.”
One break from formula is that this “teachable moment” comes awfully late, too late to work, really. How did Ali get so good so fast, and carry on all this time without instruction?
The period piece nature of the pic means we get an ’80s synth-pop score and a lot of cornball post-“Rocky” cornerman wisdom about fighting “three-legged donkeys” and “blame makes you weak, son.”
Despite the racism, the budding romance, the pathos of Ali’s “cause” and the under-developed “wrestling” side of things — no, absorbing the ethics of no-ethics brawling isn’t allowed in the NCAA — “American Fighter” never overcomes the perfunctory story and B-movie “types” performing it.
The players give fair value, but not that extra something that would have lent this pathos or made us care. And if you’ve seen one savage beat-down, you’ve seen them all.
MPA Rating: R for violence
Cast: George Kosturos, Tommy Flanagan, Sean Patrick Flanery, Allison Paige and Bryan Craig
Credits: Directed by Shawn Paul Piccinino, script by Carl Morris, Shaun Paul Piccinino. A Lionsgate release.
Running time: 1:38