Chances are, you’re going into “Tapped Out” expecting the film to hit the ground running. It’s generally expected for MMA-themed fight films to assault the viewer with non-stop action as soon as the opening credits finish rolling. But in the case of “Tapped Out”, you’re only half right. With a cast composed primarily of real-life martial arts champs and professional MMA fighters, “Tapped Out” is hardly a letdown when it comes to the action, but its approach towards facilitating it is handled far better than most viewers are probably expecting. It takes the time to lay the groundwork for its story and characters to make their ultimate payoff that much more satisfying.
In addition to co-writing and co-producing the film, Canadian Karate champion, Cody Hackman, leads the cast in the role of Michael Shaw, a once promising martial arts prodigy turned teenaged hoodlum who learns to temper his pent up rage when his rebelliousness lands him in a local dojo to perform community service. Hackman’s script, co-written with Jerry Buteyn, draws great inspiration from “The Karate Kid” in crafting the film’s narrative structure and Michael’s character arc.
Michael Biehn appears in the film as Reggie, the sensei of the dojo where our young hero lands. Biehn adds immeasurably to every film he’s in with his grizzled, gruff demeanor, and “Tapped Out” is no exception, deepening the mystery of why he has been so underutilized in the 21st century (although anyone expecting him to be revealed as Michael’s father from the future shouldn’t hold their breath)!
Reggie’s niece Jen, with whom Michael develops a budding romance, is portrayed by Jess Brown, while Nick Bateman appears as Michael’s semi-bully, Matt. Rounding out the cast is a collection of real-life MMA champs, such as Anderson Silva and Lyoto Machida and as two trainers who provide further mentorship for our hero, and the hulking Krzysztof Soszynski as an underground MMA-champ named Dominic Gray, with whom Michael discovers he holds a vendetta early on in the film.
On the night he is promoted to brown belt, a highly talented and passionate young karate prodigy named Michael Shaw witnesses both of his parents being murdered by a carjacker. Seven years later, Michael is now a rebellious punk living with his grandfather, frequently coming home in the backseat of a police car and repeating his senior year of high school. His disciplinary issues eventually reach a head, and Michael is sentenced to community service working as a janitor in a local karate dojo run by a man named Reggie.
At first wanting only to finish out his sentence, having completely forsaken his martial arts studies after his parents’ murder, he gradually rekindles his passion after seeing Reggie’s students in training, with Reggie eventually taking Michael under his wing. Michael also develops a relationship with Reggie’s niece Jen, who takes him to a local underground MMA fight one evening after training. It is here that Michael immediately recognizes the reigning champion of the fight club Dominic Gray as his parents’ killer. He is unable to get any action from the local authorities due to lack of evidence, and with his thirst for revenge escalating by the minute, Michael resolves to enter the next competition to face Dominic Gray in the cage.
“Tapped Out” takes a much more conservative approach to delivering its action than most viewers will be expecting, and given the story structure of the film, that’s a good thing. Reflective of Michael’s eschewing of practicing martial arts following his parents’ demise, it’s a good forty minutes or so before he actually trades blows with anyone. This allows the film to devote enough time to his renewed passion for karate and his subsequent training and for this, the action feels considerably more satisfying, and even more importantly, suspenseful.
The fact that our hero has been out of practice for so long makes him much more an underdog than the next Yuri Boyka that most viewers will be expecting to see. It gives the viewer that much more incentive to root for him in his training under Reggie, and his entry into the competition to exact vengeance on Dominic Gray.
When the action kicks in, it’s fast and powerful. Michael must fight his way past many formidable opponents to reach the top, and each gives their own unique challenge for him to adapt to and overcome. Yet no opponent is as powerful or as fearsome as Dominic Gray, as you’d expect! However, it is the very fact that Michael’s revenge mission has called upon him to fight his way past so many other contenders that builds the anticipation for the final duel.
Krzysztof Soszynski is simply bred to play villains like Gray. If the sight of him laying waste to all challengers who come his way sells him as a powerful physical foe, his proclivity for towering over people and threatening them with all the ways he intends to squash them, solidifies him as a textbook sociopath. His and Michael’s duel is a true David vs Goliath battle, made far more emotionally powerful by both the buildup that’s been given to it, and a pre-fight speech Michael makes calling out his enemy for the monster that he is. The training that goes into Michael’s climb to the top is some of the best seen in recent memory, both in his contemporary tutelage under Anderson Silva and Lyoto Machida and his more old school training under Reggie.
Hackman and director Allan Ungar both have a keen eye for one of the most enduring tropes in martial arts films, specifically seeing the hero’s mastery of a specific technique or training exercise fully realized in combat, and this manifests itself perfectly at two specific points in the film. One occurs during his studies with Machida and Silva, and in which Michael displays his perfection of a jumping front kick in one of his preliminary fights after drilling the technique repeatedly under his two mentors. Even better is Reggie pushing Michael to perfect a basic reverse punch against a makiwara -one of the most renown karate training tools in the world- leading to one very satisfying pay off in Michael’s qualifying match; a true reminder that the efficacy of more basic techniques should never be overlooked or underestimated, either in reality or on film.
“Tapped Out” outshines many MMA films of the past several years, but largely for different reasons than you might think. The quality of the action is light years ahead of bottom-of-the-barrel drivel like “Death Warrior” and “Never Surrender”, but it’s also a much better paced and far more emotionally loaded film than most will probably anticipate. Equal parts character study, coming-of-age drama, and martial arts thriller, “Tapped Out” asks as much sentient commitment from the viewer as it does its hero, and rewards both for their efforts.
- With the film being heavily inspired by “The Karate Kid”, the high school principal who disciplines Michael to serve out his community service is played by Martin Kove, the overbearing Cobra Kai sensei Kreese from the original “The Karate Kid” no less!
- Cody Hackman and Allan Ungar wrote the film together over several weeks in various Starbucks establishments throughout Los Angeles.
- The technique Lyoto Machida drills Michael through in the film, a jumping front kick, is the same technique that Machida used to win his fight against Randy Couture.
Film Rating: 8/10