US, 2011, 94 minutes, Colour.
Samuel L. Jackson, Kellan Lutz, Johnny Messner, Katia Winter, James Remar.
Directed by Jonah Loop.
Arena is a film that viewers tuning in, especially with Samuel L. Jackson as the main star, may not want to continue. It is a film of violence about violence – a kind of snuff story, gladiators fighting to the literal death for online television video production. It is an example of what some commentators refer to as the pornography of violence.
The film takes its cue from computer games – with their violent competitiveness as well as the lust for violence of some of the observers. This is made clear at the opening of the film with a group of young adults salaciously enjoying the combat scenes, speculating whether they were real or virtual.
The film is ambivalent in its attitude towards violence – with the pro-violence winning out in the end, the exploitation of the visuals of the combats (staged rather more like computer games than realistic combat). However, there is an element of criticism, of satire on the viewers of this kind of material (mainly a group of young college students and some Japanese executives who should be occupied with their work at the office).
The film actually does come to some kind of moral ending – with a twist at the end which audiences would not foresee.
The plot is basic. Kellan Lutz (the Twilight films) portrays a young man whose wife is pregnant and is killed in a car accident (the nature of which is not revealed until the end). He goes on a bender in Mexico and is recruited by a young woman (Katia Winter) and virtually imprisoned in the headquarters of the Death Combat Company. Samuel L. Jackson presides over the company with a lascivious attitude towards the violence as well as to Asian women assistants. Johnny Messner portrays his sadistic second-in-charge. Katia Winter is the recruiter.
The film shows the pressure on the captive, who seems unwilling to fight, but who is pressurised into fighting – going through ten combats in order to gain his freedom. He is antagonistic towards his recruiter – although she becomes more sympathetic and helps him. (Not without some exploitative nudity – which also indicates the intentions of the film-makers.)
When the hero finally defeats the sadistic assistant, the FBI arrives. It is then revealed that our hero was actually an FBI agent, going undercover, under the supervision of his boss, played by James Remar.
There is a final confrontation between Samuel L. Jackson and Kellan Lutz – but, after the revelation of his true identity, and the taking of the girl into custody, there is the possibility for a sequel. The material went straight to video release and DVD.
The direction is by Jonah Loop, whose main work has been as a special effects engineer and supervisor.
A film symptomatic of the problems with presenting violence on screen, the effect on the audience – especially sadistic adults who revel in watching this kind of material and computer games. And there is always the surprise of Samuel L. Jackson appearing in such a film.