In the new film Embattled, it seems size, or at least the discussion of size, does matter when it comes to making a first impression.
In this case, the impression is wow as the Nick Sarkisov-directed movie opens with a father debating his penis size with his 18-year-old son as the pair move through a crowd on their way to an MMA octagon, where the father proceeds to nearly kill a man with his hands and feet.
In case you’re wondering, dad claims it’s big, son says not so big. This exchange ends with the father leaning into the son, narrowing his eyes and saying: “If you think I’m dropping down to a seven you need to see a mother—-ing optometrist.”
And with that the film begins.
“The writer, David McKenna, yeah, he knows how to set the tone right away,” said Darren Mann, the East Vancouver native that plays 18-year-old Jett Boykins. “We get a very clear picture of how opposite these characters are. They are father and son, but they are very different.”
No kidding. MMA champion Cash Boykins (Stephen Dorff) is an irredeemable, menacing maniac with no off switch who loves booze, drugs and himself. His oldest son, Jett (Darren Mann), is a sweet kid who wants more out of life. He tries his best, but between bobbing and weaving around his father’s volatile ego, school work and constantly being called on by his hard-working mother (Elizabeth Reaser) to look after his younger brother, Quinn, who has Williams syndrome — a rare neurodevelopmental genetic disorder that causes learning or developmental challenges — Jett is spread thin. Quinn is played by the writer McKenna’s actual son, Colin, who himself lives with Williams syndrome.
For Darren Mann, the script had some reminders of his own early life, reminders that he could use once the camera rolled.
“Growing up I had an older brother (Tyler Mann) that took me absolutely everywhere with him and we didn’t have a dad growing up. My mom (Lenore Mann) had to work whatever job she could so we could play hockey and stuff,” said Mann over the phone recently from his mom’s house in Penticton where he’s riding out COVID-19 with his fiancée. “I was really blessed with a really great role model of a brother. In some ways I actually got to channel a little bit of my own brother and what that was like.”
For Mann, who moviegoers might remember from his excellent turn as Ballas in the strong 2018 indie film Giant Little Ones, this film marks his biggest role to date.
“Right away when I saw it was going to be the writer from American History X and Blow I was like, ‘Oh man, this is awesome. I can’t wait to read this.’ It was just very clear right away that he gave us such well-rounded and fleshed-out characters,” said Mann. “There was so much for me to work with. To make him a more in-depth character and have him come off the page. It all really does start with a great writer like David who clearly has spent a tonne of time creating these characters and giving us such a great blueprint to work off of.”
Now 31, Mann began to study acting at age 19. But before that his life was focused on hockey. A decent forward, Mann had some junior hockey success and even played pro briefly for the Indiana Blizzard in the now-defunct All American Hockey League. Hockey may have ended at 21, but Mann’s physical strengths and attributes from years of training translated seamlessly to this role of an up-and-coming MMA fighter.
“Anytime I get to mix athletics with getting to act, well that’s a bonus for me,” said Mann, whose regular workout regime includes boxing.
It was Mann’s athleticism that helped him land this role.
“Darren is an amazing actor, and he would be right for pretty much any role, but for us it was a combination of factors that worked for us,” said Sarkisov in an email. “He has amazing physicality being an athlete. It was important for us he looked the part, because we didn’t have enough time to prep him if he didn’t. Looks were also a factor — casting around Stephen Dorff, he had to have some resemblance to him. And most importantly, it was his acting skill. Darren is just that — an amazing actor.”
While the film has the MMA world as a backdrop, it isn’t a fight film so much as it’s a coming-of-age movie about a kid who finally realizes that no matter what he does or tries to do, his father will never change. All this comes into focus as Jett, through a series of flashbacks and witnessing his horrible dad in action, begins to see how truly emotionally bankrupt Cash is.
“Even when Jett comes to that understanding that it’s probably not possible to have the kind of relationship that he wants with his father he never stops longing for it, though,” says Mann. “I can speak for myself that I totally understand those feelings he is dealing with coming from a somewhat similar situation with my own father.”
Mann explained his dad struggled with drugs and alcohol, and that led to a fractured relationship.
“He wasn’t the most reliable or exactly a role model,” said Mann. “I think I can speak for most young men, they wish that they had a relationship with their father. I think every kid wants to look up and idolize their own dad, right? Jett even tries to do that until everything comes clear to him. But he still wished that he had that relationship.”
Unfortunately, for Jett, he has to go through his father in the ring on his way to freedom.
The actors trained weeks for the fight scenes at the SBG Alabama gym in Birmingham, where the movie was shot in 2018. Mann said he trained with Dorff’s body-double and Dorff trained with Mann’s body-double.
” … I’m not sure that I have met Steve yet,” said Mann when asked about his co-star. “I worked a lot with Cash Boykins and I got to know him well and he was one hell of a villain. And you know I’m grateful for that because you need a really big problem to make a great hero rise and he definitely gave me that big problem to work with and I’m thankful for that.
“Maybe he (Dorff) I and will crack a beer one day and talk about the movie,” added Mann. “I’ll meet the real Steve then, tell you all about him.”
The film is available on the Apple TV app and iTunes.