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  • Rev Horror

Arena Wars

Dir. Brandon Slagle (2024)

Criminals are given the chance to fight their way through seven of the most vicious killers on the planet to escape with their freedom.

Mahal Empire is one of the premier name in indie B-movies today, creating a plethora of entertaining films running the gamut from vampire westerns (Bloodthirst) to military-vs.-zombies action flicks (Bridge of the Doomed). Their formula of taking character actors and bigger names past their prime and crafting interesting narratives in which to place them works incredibly well, like a more creative The Asylum with much more entertaining films. Writers/producers Michael and Sonny Mahal have done a tremendous job getting their creative output into market, using a combination of crowdfunding and an indie production ethos that has allowed them to make a name for themselves in the industry. Up today is yet another from Mahal Empire, this time an intriguing dystopian sci-fi flick about gladiatorial combat and the devaluation of life in a corporate entertainment world.

Luke Bender (John Wells) is a wrongfully convicted ex-Marine who volunteered to serve a prison sentence in the service of national security. Arena Wars, the world's number one sports entertainment program, begins losing viewers, features a team of seven of the world's most dangerous killers in a gauntlet that death row inmates must survive in order to win their freedoms. When the program begins losing viewers, company owner Belladonna (Kevin Hager) decides to throw Luke into the arena and declare his innocence, giving the audience someone they can feel good about rooting for. Luke must team together with the other inmates to try to survive an onslaught of killers like Meat Wagon, Master Blaster, and Cutie Pie to escape from the arena while seeking to protect his fiancee and her father that live outside the prison walls.

With a film like this, essentially a modern retelling of The Running Man mixed in with a little bit of Battlebots, it's important to get the villains right. Thankfully, Arena Wars does just that, providing some fantastically fun and deranged killers against whom our heroes can face off. Master Blaster is the "President of the Unabomber fan club," having been imprisoned after bombing Yankee Stadium. Mr. Smiles, the clown-masked serial killer who offed a bunch of college co-eds with his trusty axe, is another villain, as is Meat Wagon, a trusted local butcher who got his meat from a bunch of murdered children. Each killer is outrageous and compelling, providing a rad-as-hell backstory that makes them uniquely dangerous and fascinating from an audience perspective.

As with pretty much any film with a similar plot, of which there have been many, the downside of creating characters like these are that you never really get to explore their backstories beyond a simple bit of exposition. The formula for the film is fairly straightforward, and it's been used countless times before in films like this, but it's used particularly well here. The killers look badass enough to make them worth watching despite not seeing how they wound up here, and the heroes serve largely as dispensable cannon fodder for their methods of mayhem. The fighting in the arena, likewise, is exhilarating and bloody, handled very well for a film with a smaller budget.

The undercurrents of corporate cronyism and late-stage capitalism remain, commentary that is handled deftly by the screenwriters (the Mahals and director Brandon Slagle) and inserted without the over-the-top cartoonish-ness that a lot of films like this stoop to. Sure, Belladonna is evil, but he's not Snidely Whiplash so much as he's Jeff Bezos, making deals with devils in order to increase the bottom line. The nuanced handling of his character adds a lot of intrigue to a film that could've been gimmicky and ridiculous. These small positive choices help to make Arena Wars much better than the sum of its parts and a wildly entertaining foray into the world of reality television-focused science fiction.

Wells is a good choice for the lead, and while he does come across a little "GI Joe," he does a fantastic job in the role. In fact, all the actors do. Johnny Huang is delightfully irritating as Khan (as in Wrath of, he tells people when he's introduced), Kylie Fulmer kills it as ex-MMA fighter-turned-prisoner Billie, BJ Mezek is excellent as arena warrior-turned-showrunner Boggs, to name just a few. There's even a nice role for Michael Madsen, who is stellar as television commentator Samson. It's a well-acted film with non-stop action whenever it isn't trying to tell the story, and the fight choreography is badass and effective. The costuming for the killers in the arena is phenomenal, each character looking more rad than the next. Arena Wars is, quite possibly, the best film yet from Mahal Empire, and it's an excellent watch for anyone who's a fan of dystopian science fiction.

Who this movie is for: Science fiction/action fans, Running Man aficionados, E! TV execs looking for new reality tv show ideas

Bottom line: I'm a big fan of what they're doing over at Mahal Empire, and Arena Wars is quite possibly their best film yet. Exciting from start to finish with some stellar character design, it's a well-written, well-filmed, and well-acted flick that is far better than it should be. It's exciting and ultra-violent, and while it misses out on some of the gore that a larger budgeted film would have contained, the choreo allows it to be thrilling as hell anyway. If you get a chance to check this one out, I highly recommend that you do so. The killers alone are worth watching.

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