You gotta admire the determination, but too many weak links ultimately break Unchained (2021).
Move over Len Kabasinski, take a seat Don Michael Paul, and time to retire Albert Pyun, the director known only as Raphaello has burst onto the Z-movie scene with Unchained, which “stars” Eric Roberts, wrestler Taya Valkyrie who never fights once, and newcomer Mair Mulroney.
Former professional wrestler, Rock Riddle also swings by to lend some much needed flamboyance to this surprisingly flat, female-led action/thriller about kidnapped women who are forced to fight each other in an underground mixed martial arts (MMA) ring. Even with an expertly crafted schlock-o-meter that’s been finely tuned over 30 years, I’m unable to determine if Unchained is self-aware or if it thinks it’s the new Never Surrender (2009).
UAMC Reviews Unchained
Aella (Mair Mulroney), an unemployed and frustrated veteran, accepts a suspicious invitation to audition for a movie about an all-female underground fight club. Everything is going fine until she gets abducted and forced to participate in an all-female underground fight club. She takes her licks but eventually works her way to the top of the four-member stable of lady gladiators at the rundown farm near Topanga Canyon while half-heartedly escaping and getting the others to join forces. The camp is run by an evil Warden (Larry Andrews), who I’ll refer to as Not-Tom Savini, and a mysterious administrator who’s somehow connected to Aella’s past.
If only the ladies of Unchained improved their fighting skills beyond their Tuesday morning kickboxing class at LA Fitness, they may have lived up to the lofty expectations of Never Surrender. The “Fight or Die” episode of Walker, Texas Ranger is also way out of their reach as the stakes are low, the fighters are few, and the nefarious spectators on the Zoom call are literally phoning it in.
Let’s Start with the Bright Spots
To be completely fair, it must’ve been an absolute nightmare to film in LA during the pandemic and I admire Raphaello’s determination even though he could’ve worked on a smaller, more intimate narrative during that time, like a sequel to Bloodbath. The show must go on with actors performing scenes together who are clearly not in the same room, socially distanced goons, and filming mostly outdoors just outside of the city. Also, Eric Roberts, who plays the Aella’s deceased father, filmed his scene in what appears to be his house and delivers lines while never getting up from his favorite comfy chair. At least we, the audience, are reassured that it was a COVID-friendly production.
There are two bright spots in this future Best-of-the-Worst spotlight episode on Red Letter Media’s YouTube channel: the make-up and Not-Tom Savini’s charmingly terrible performance as a one-dimensional, handlebar mustache-twirling villain. Although the MMA-style fights were disappointing, the bruises and wounds were well crafted and applied. Not-Tom Savini’s acting is distracting at first but he looks like he’s having a blast administering baseball bat beatdowns and just being awful all the time. God forbid there’s a sequel but if there is, make it about the Warden’s backstory because that’s the only interesting part about any of these characters.
Regarding the Dialogue and Visual Effects
The real entertainment value here comes from the VFX, stilted dialogue, and the homeless men that were convinced to play the goons in this movie. The digital blood effects look like a 2005-era plug-in along with the overlaid explosions at the end. The pièce de résistance is the comically-sized CGI GoPro camera that randomly shows up on a wall or fence post in every few scenes, which is how the administrator keeps tabs on the camp. The dialogue is similarly clunky and amusing with exchanges like, and I’m paraphrasing:
Baddie: “You’re going to fight!”
MMA Lady: “No I’m not!”
Baddie: “Yes you are!”
MMA Lady: “You can’t make me!”
Baddie: “Oh yes I can!”
MMA Lady: “Noooo!”
And so on…like me trying to get three tired and cranky kids to take a bath before dinner or else I’m going to eat the whole pizza myself. Coincidentally, they often practice their nascent MMA skills on me when I least suspect it. Maybe I should make an underground fighting movie based on true events, but I digress.
But, How Ultimate is it?
Oh, I forgot about the homeless guys. I don’t know that they’re homeless but they look eerily similar to the disheveled guys I routinely chased off from the county courthouse grounds when I worked as a security guard downtown. Look, I’m happy they found work and a few hot meals at craft services during this difficult time. Their efforts guarding that camp weren’t entirely wasted as they provided quite a few scenes of enjoyment. A pivotal scene involves them leaving their guns unattended in an open, unlocked Ford Festiva at a critical moment for our heroes.
Add another one to the pile of illegal fighting tournament movies, an action sub-genre that has not yet overstayed its decades-long welcome. Raphaello can’t quite get the trope to work in Unchained. The only place to go now is to do a crossover, like underground Amish kickboxers vs. time traveling zombie-nazi mutants. I don’t want to give him too many ideas though as he still needs time to hone his craft and learn more compositing techniques in Adobe’s After Effects software. If amateur MMA and bad b-movies are your thing, check out Unchained. The rest of us will probably re-watch Fight Club, Never Back Down 1 and 2, or Arena or anything else…except Money Plane.