“The man running from his dark past” and “the man with no memory of his past” stories have each been done to death, but Jesse Johnson’s “Pit Fighter” crafts its own gimmick of merging both with vicious drug cartels and incorporates them all into the take-no-prisoners world of underground fighting, all the while centering on the redemptive story of a man with a pain threshold that Wolverine would envy.
Former Legionnaire and Muay Thai champion Dominique Vandenberg steps into the role of Jack Severino, an amnesiac pit fighter struggling to find peace in his life as fragments of his violent past continue to creep into his memory. Steven Bauer of “Scarface” fame portrays Manolo, an associate of the local mafia who becomes Jack’s close friend and corner man, with Fernando Carrillo portraying the vicious mobster Veneno who keeps both men on a short leash.
Stana Katic plays Marianne, a woman from Jack’s past whose appearance jogs his memory, while Stephen Graham portrays her close associate Harry. Some of Jack’s opponents in his underground fights including veteran stunt performers and martial artists like Andre “Chyna” McCoy, Eric Muller, and Edwin Villa, with even the incredible Scott Adkins showing up in the film, albeit in the non-fighting role of Jack’s old ally Nathan. Go figure!
In a crime-ridden corner of southern Mexico, Jack Severino rules over the underground fighting scene with a literal iron fist. Fighting under the moniker “El Yanqui”, Jack’s memory was shattered to pieces five years earlier, leaving him in the care of Manolo, an associate of the local Marietta mafia to whom Jack is deeply indebted.
His financial woes are seemingly solved when he discovers that he is a stunningly powerful martial artist, and the world of underground fighting has been his home ever since. Jack gets a sudden jolt to his memory with the appearance a familiar looking woman whom he believes to be the one for whom he has the name “Marianne” tattooed on his chest. As his amnesia slowly begins to erode, Jack comes to realize that “I might not have been the best of men” with his new memories appearing to indicate quite a violent former life, one that is about to finally catch up with him.
If there’s any truth to the phrase “No pain, no gain”, then our anti-hero Jack should be a millionaire. Over the course of the film, he’s shot, beaten, stitched, healed, and beaten again so many times that you have to wonder if he’s ever gone a day in his life without pushing through some form of extreme pain.
Of course, he gives just as good as he gets, and Vandenberg delivers a well-rounded portrayal of a genuinely good-natured guy who can transform into an absolute beast at the drop of a hat. Even when he’s out of the pit, you simply can’t help but marvel at the scenes of Jack shadowboxing and how blindingly fast his hands are; he’s basically taken Muhammad Ali’s saying “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” and replaced the word “bee” with “wasp”.
This also serves to create a nice contrast against Vandenberg’s fairly small stature and soft-spoken voice, making Jack into a character that most people wouldn’t peg for a tough guy. Seeking refuge in a local mission, he continually has visions of the mysterious Marianne appearing to him in the form of the Virgin Mary and becomes a devoted Catholic, all the while keeping his anger and aggression hidden from anyone outside of the underground fight club. It certainly leaves his first opponent in the pit wide open for a rude awakening!
Under the direction of fight choreographer Stephen “The Fight Professor” Quadros, the fight sequences in the pit are in equal parts flashy and brutal. For Jack’s first match, he takes the novel approach of allowing the reigning champion to pummel him for the first two rounds on the grounds that he’s “gotta let him have his time, out of respect”, before going for the knockout. He pretty much ditches that policy from there on, however, and mauls through every other contender in the pit, with his only serious opposition coming in the form of a Brazilian fighter played by stuntman Andre “Chyna” McCoy.
He and Vandenberg first square off during the opening fight before meeting up for a rematch later on in the best, and most blood-soaked duel of the film. Of course, Jack is a man to whom pain means nothing, and he quickly heals up for the finale, where he single-handedly stands off against an entire platoon of Veneno’s cartel enforcers. You may have to overlook the laughably bad marksmenship of Jack’s foes, but it’s a pretty spectacular way to finish a flick with a modest $600,000 budget, and closes the film out on a fitting note (especially with respect to the soundtrack of the final sequence) that brings Jack’s quest for redemption for his murderous past full circle.
Made for pennies and fueled by dual themes of pain and redemption, “Pit Fighter” is well worth a look by martial arts’ movie lovers and MMA aficionados alike. Those who have trouble with the sight of blood might want to sit this one out, but you’ll surely be hard pressed to find a harder head in all of martial arts cinema than the one belonging to Jack Severino.
- Dominique Vandenberg served in the French Foreign Legion for five years, during which time he saw combat in Africa and Bosnia. After leaving the Legion, he competed professionally in Thailand and Burma, and even took part in a few underground fights. He later came to America to break into the film industry. Aside from “Pit Fighter”, some of his other credits include “The Honorable”, “Gangs of New York”, “Beowulf”, “True Legend”, and “Mortal Kombat”.
- Andre “Chyna” McCoy served as Laurence Fishburne’s stunt man in “The Matrix”. Some of his other credits include “The Matrix Reloaded”, “Mortal Kombat”, “The One”, “The Time Machine”, and “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning”. He also appeared in “Kung Fu Hero” opposite Tiger Chen of “Man of Tai Chi”.
- The entire movie was filmed in two weeks, with the fight sequences being filmed in just two days.