31st Jul2019

Fantasia 2019: ‘American Fighter’ Review

by Phil Wheat

Stars: Bryan Craig, Tommy Flanagan, Sean Patrick Flannery, George Kosturos, Allison Paige | Written by Carl Morris, Shaun Piccinino | Directed by Shaun Piccinino


A fictional sequel to an semi-autobiographical original, American Fighter is an interesting proposition for a film and, at least in cinematic terms, shares a lot in common with the classic martial arts film Bloodsport – both deal with underground fighting and both have a connection to the real-life tales of their characters. In this case George Kosturos plays the alter-ego of producer Ali Afshar – whose story of moving from Iran to America and fitting in by becoming a top-class athlete was told in the 2016 film American Wrestler.

American Fighter picks up where that film left off, once again following Ali Jahani (George Kosturos) as he tries to raise funds to get his mother out of Tehran after his father is pulled of their flight to the US and assassinated, leaving her stranded. Jahani is desperate to get his mother safely out but this can’t be done through conventional channels. And it can’t be done cheap. Where will he get that kind of money? A buddy brings him to a low-key warehouse at night. Stepping through the doors, Ali comes face to face with the answer — and it’s a troubling one. Head to head fights, any style goes, for cash. Before Ali can help his mother, someone’s gonna get hurt…

Can you say underdog sports drama? For that’s what American Fighter is. Yes, where the first film told a true to life tale this one aims squarely at the fight-filled “good guy overcomes the odds” stories found in the likes of Jean Claude Van Damme’s early films, including the aforementioned Bloodsport! Oh and did I mention this is set in 1981, the era of Stallone’s epic boxing films and Daniel-san’s takedown of the Cobra Kai. All of which means American Fighter feels very much like a throwback to another era; an era of mid-budget action films that made stars out of their leading men and gave us a myriad of beloved action-movie franchises. In short, this one’s right up my street!

However unlike the films it emulates, there’s also an interesting dichotomy at play in American Fighter. We have a teen drama which sees Ali having a romance in college, then there’s the brutal underground fights – now together these are nothing new; after all, that’s Karate Kid in a nutshell. However Karate Kid didn’t have such an underlying tone of extreme racism running through it’s fights (our hero here is a Middle-Eastern kid fighting big white dudes, NO ONE in these fights wants to see him win – not even fight “promoter” Tommy Flanagan); then we have the very idea of people trying to escape Iran, in a real-world crisis that really happened in the 80s. These are all plot threads that shouldn’t work when put together yet somehow they do.

Of course the real-world crisis in Iran is merely used as a dramatic catalyst for the films underground plot and as a way in which to easily make the audience root for protagonist Ali – because we all want to see him succeed don’t we? We all want him to get his mother out of Tehran? Some might say it’s a cheap way to create drama but then didn’t countless action movies of the 80s also use real-world situations to help tell their stories? Rambo, Missing in Action… I’m looking at you.

Given that the film follows every cliche and trope in the book this is a movie that shouldn’t work. Yet American Fighter does. Surprisingly it does so by using every underdog movie cliche and trope in the action movie play book! Essentially by harkening back to an era we don’t see too often these days, especially not done this well, American Fighter taps into a nostalgia for a genre that people of a certain age, myself included, still look back on with great fondness. Plus it has a fantastic lead in actor George Kosturos who, as Ali, channels Daniel-san, Frank Dux and more iconic underdog heroes in his quest to help not only his mother but himself.

**** 4/5

American Fighter screened at the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festivel on Sunday 28th July.


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