Arena Wars (2024)

Rating: B-

Dir: Brandon Slagle
Star: John Wells, Kevin Hager, BJ Mezek, Michael Madsen

This is certainly a better remake of Rollerball than Rollerball. To be fair, it’s also a fairly decent remake of The Running Man, and will likely improve on Edgar Wright’s upcoming one (which is probably going to have Michael Cera take Arnie’s role, or some shit). It takes place in, and I quote, “Big Fucking City”, where Belladonna runs the titular TV show. In this, death row inmates get a chance for a pardon if they can fight their way through a gauntlet of seven heavily-armed and vicious killers. However, the audience has been getting bored, resulting in declining ratings. Belladonna needs something to bring the viewers back, or the series risks being cancelled.

That something arrives in the shape of Luke Bender (Wells) – and I don’t think that’s intended as a Futurama reference. This former marine was sent to prison, for a crime he didn’t commit of course, taking the fall on the orders of his commanding officer. He’ll be a rather more sympathetic figure, whom the audience can get behind, compared to the usual roll-call of serial killers and terrorists. Though I would happily cheer for the participant whose crime is listed as blowing up Yankee Stadium. However, Bender’s success as he and his colleagues progress through the game, forces Belladonna to reconsider his decision, and pull the rug out from under his new champion. Can Luke survive the attacks, both on- and off-screen?

A few of the usual Mahal Empire repertory cast show up. Eric Roberts literally Zooms in his part, while Robert LaSardo has a small but effective role in the first batch of Arena Wars contestants. The best is Madsen, who is the show’s play-by-play commentator, Samson, with Robert Donavan as his colour guy. It’s the closest the film gets to genuine satire; stay tuned for the end credits, which play out over more footage of Samson in action. However, the movie is mostly carried by Wells, and he does a good job. It feels like he’s a low-rent version of Scott Adkins, and that’s a better compliment than perhaps it sounds. Not as good in the action stakes, but Luke comes over as a likeable and sympathetic lead.

The look of the movie is well executed too. Perhaps too many unnecessary shots of the cheering audience – I’d rather have learned more about the society in which the show operates. I’d also have preferred the fight scenes to have more impact. There’s a decent chainsaw dismemberment at the end, and it’s a shame more of the violence is not at the same level. However, the film remains an entertaining blast, with a slew of interesting characters across the board: some of the resident gladiators like Cutie Pie and Master Blaster almost deserve their own show. This feels such a throwback to the spirit of the eighties, it should only be available on VHS or Beta.

The film comes out on June 25th through Gravitas Ventures.