Arena is the type of film that Death Race would be if it had an even smaller budget and a lesser cast. Oh, and if it was also about fights to the death instead of races. But apart from that small little plot detail, the two films are identical. A man is captured after being tragically separated from his wife. He’s forced to participate in either a race or fight to the death. He becomes a crowd favorite. If he wins a certain number in a row, he’ll be released. And those running the show are evil and probably won’t keep their word.
In Arena, the lead is Kellan Lutz, who, unlike Jason Statham, has no natural charisma. It’s hard to care about him when he can’t look sympathetic to save his life. Even after his wife dies — which looked orchestrated to me from the beginning, but the film doesn’t want to reveal that until much later; Spoiler Alert — he maintains his same blank-stare look. Anyway, he decides to go to bars to drown his sorrows, and is seen fighting by a woman named Milla (Katia Winter), who seduces him and then gets him captured right before they were about to get intimate.
We get to his prison, and it turns out that Samuel L. Jackson, not Joan Allen, is in charge. He’s a man who is being looked for by everyone on the face of the planet, in large part because he streams fights to the death on the internet. I don’t know if the various agencies know that he’s using prisoners, not volunteers to do this, but we soon find out that this is the case when Lutz’s character, David, is forced into a fight before any real context is established for him. It’s kill or be killed and, to nobody’s surprise, David doesn’t wind up dead.
David is told that if he makes it through ten fights, he’ll be granted his freedom. We know that this can’t happen. We know he’ll be double-crossed, that there will be another goal he’ll need to get to, or that he’ll figure out how much he likes fighting and that he simply wants to stay and become famous on the internet. One of these does happen, and then a plot twist occurs which is pointless and adds nothing to the film.
This is one of those cases of a twist just for the sake of having one. We get a flashback that shows us how everything wasn’t as it initially seemed, detailing every little thing that should get changed because of this reveal, but when I sat back and think about it, it really didn’t change a whole lot. One character’s motivation is a bit different, but only at the beginning. Once the fights begin, the film would play out the same regardless of initial intentions. It is, after all, kill or be killed.
I’m likely giving away more than you need to figure out which character is involved in the twist, but it honestly doesn’t matter. If you’re watching a film like Arena for the story, you’re doing it wrong. You should be here for the bloody fights, or perhaps for the shameless nudity. Both are here, and while it’s a little hard to mess up on the latter, the former is where I’d like to spend my time, as it takes a lot more skill to film a fight scene than a naked woman (although I’ll stay out of which one you’ll enjoy more, regardless of skill).
Now, the fight scenes are very gory and very violent, so if you’re put off by that, you’ll want to stay far away from Arena. This is a film rated R partially for “strong brutal and bloody violence throughout.” That’s not to say that they’re particularly fun or interesting, just that they’re violent and gory. Bloody comes out of any limb, bones are snapped, and for the most part, you get to see all of it, in the best special effects that a $10 million budget can render.
Yes, this is a direct-to-DVD movie with a small budget and a simple premise. Does that mean I should expect less? All I wanted to be was entertained, and that didn’t happen for the most part. Even many of the fight scenes aren’t that fun because they take place in a montage where all you see are the kills, with nothing leading up to those. There are some fun concepts — each battle takes place in a different time period, using that setting as a backdrop and a restriction on the weapons one could use — but during the fights we actually see, this doesn’t really factor in all that much.
Being in direct-to-DVD films sometimes gives the actors the excuse to not put their A-effort into the project. That can probably be said about a large portion of those on-screen in this one. Even Samuel L. Jackson, who is almost always so enjoyable to watch, is less than enthusiastic about this role. He hams it up a little, sure, but he’s more lifeless than you’d hope for. I did appreciate seeing Johnny Messner as his right-hand man, if only because Messner deserves to be in more movies.
Arena had the potential to be a fun B-movie. It had the low budget, the simple but silly premise, and an excuse to give us over-the-top fight scenes that would be so ridiculous that we’d have to have a good time. All of that is wasted, and Arena wound up being a very dull experience. It’s not worth watching, and feels very much like Death Race, save for a less charismatic lead and more nudity and gore.