Athleticism and cinema go hand-in-hand. Whether it’s Harold Lloyd appearing to climb the side of a building in 1923’s Safety Last!, Sylvester Stallone in the Rocky series, or Dwayne Johnson in anything from the last 23 years, actors continuously find ways to incorporate feats of strength into their stories. Where Keaton and Stallone use their natural talents to enhance physical performances, Johnson entered the entertainment industry through the world of sports. Like Johnson, former NFL running back Thomas Q. Jones transitions his career in sports to appear in films and television and most recently appeared in eight episodes of Luke Cage Season 2. With the Matthew Berkowitz-directed A Violent Man, Jones makes the leap to leading man in a crime thriller set within the MMA world. Though A Violent Man offers engaging performances and strong physical work, it’s the subtext within the film that lingers as Berkowitz and co-writer Justin Steele’s script subtextually explores systemic racism in modern society.
Small-time MMA fighter Ty Matthews (Jones) spends his days training, sparing with buddy Jameson (John Lewis), and dreaming of when he’ll get a shot in the big leagues. That day seems to come when Ben Green (Bruce Davison) appears at his gym with current title holder Marco Reign (Chuck Liddell) looking for a practice match as a warm-up for an upcoming fight. Since the manager, Pete (Isaach De Bankolé), is old friends with Ben, he’s able to get Ty in the ring with Marco. Seeing an opportunity to impress, Ty takes advantage of a weakness and beats the previously undefeated champ during the spar. He’s so proud of his win, he books an interview with local reporter Victoria Mata (Denise Richards) to discuss it. Things go from bad to worse when Ty’s slapped with an NDA about the spar and then Mata is murdered. Suddenly finding himself at the center of a police investigation, Ty’s not sure what else he can do but fight his way through to the truth.
One of the first things audiences will notice is the look of A Violent Man. Itself a crime noir, the lighting, direction, and scene structure all convey a downward spiral in the abyss. Doesn’t matter how often someone reminds Ty to pull up, circumstances arise which seem to work against him, pulling him further down. The tone for A Violent Man is set in the opening sequence as the title cards appear and disappear, cut between the flash of a police forensics team taking photos of Mata’s corpse, red light the only illumination. For audiences without greater context, while they may not know who is dead or why, the intent is clear: if A Violent Man begins in blood, it’s likely going to end that way, making it clear that this is no tonal aberration. When the film catches up to the moments before Mata’s death, she and Ty share a romantic liaison: the room bathed in red light, Mata wearing white. Later, when Ty gets home, he lays down upon their orange-red sheets next to his girlfriend Whitney (Khalilah Joi) in her white sleepwear. There is death and there is innocence with Ty being the combining factor. This, of course, isn’t the only mirroring which Berkowitz and Steele put into the script as two later scenes, both when Ty is talking with someone, involve Whitney chatting with a policewoman (Felisha Terrell). Each time, Ty is placed opposite Whitney on the screen and both are being examined for their knowledge. It’s simple staging which communicates the subconscious conflict within the couple, regardless of the murder investigation. Choices like these demonstrate incredible thought into the visual style of A Violent Man’s narrative.
For the fight fans who check this out for Liddell and Lewis, don’t worry. There’re plenty of fisticuffs for you, too. What’s particularly nice, however, is that the fighting isn’t glamorous in its presentation. When in the ring, the fighting’s about skill and technique. Ty, the low man, seeking a title fight to prove the worth he believes he possesses even though, in his mind, he’s constantly left behind or cast aside. So these fights, to him, are a means of declaring his worth. For the most part, the camerawork makes the audience feel up-close with the audience in a similar manner as in the original Rocky. As Ty and Marco battle for position during their spar, we’re right there with them both. Thanks to the octagonal ring they compete in later, the camerawork is a touch more distant, with scenes shot through the metal wiring. You still get the wow-factor of watching two pros throw down, but it’s not as visceral a moment. Considering it’s part of a climax, the lack of immersion is reductive to the emotional journey at play.
What’s off-putting about A Violent Man is the execution of the story. On paper, it’s fairly straight-forward: Ty’s navigating a potentially career-making opportunity while being investigated by the police for murder. He’s reticent to admit they slept together since sleeping with Mata means admitting to cheating on his girlfriend, but is all too willing to give the police, despite the police’s history with the Black community, whatever they want leading to tension, secrets, and betrayals. However, there’re some inconsistencies with the portrayal of the police in the film. Detective Beckett (Jon Sklaroff) first appeals to Ty in a friendly manner before leading him to the evidence they have. Though Ty is helpful, the fact that he won’t admit to sleeping with Mata makes Beckett think Ty’s the suspect. That’s fine, except Beckett’s partner, played by Terrell, seems to take all of this personally, wanting Ty’s head on a pike. She’s even willing to interview Whitney in one of the most subtly disturbing scenes of the film. Yet later, when someone comes to speak with them about Ty, both officers want to blow it off. In a film like this, the police would be a looming specter on Ty’s back, yet they appear, come at him hard, then disappear for the majority of the film, their desire to convict him for the murder driven more by desire than by evidence.
Though this aspect is the weakest part of A Violent Man, it also opens the door to the most interesting aspect. Intentionally or not, A Violent Man seems to be an indictment of systemic racism. We learn from exposition that Ty is an orphan, basically adopted by Pete, and he wants to make a living fighting, something Whitney wishes he wouldn’t do. A genial man, the only time people begin to see Ty as a threat is once he’s been accused of murder. Whitney looks at him differently, a stranger calls him “boy,” and a clerk at a jewelry store tries to have him expelled from the store. The narrative wears its influences of the film noirs of the 1940s on its sleeves with the femme fatales, backstabbers, and a hopeless protagonist, all which infuse the film with the suggestion that Ty may have been doomed before the film began, ground down, moment by moment, conversation by conversation, until the only thing left is rage. As such, A Violent Man takes on a heavier, more somber tone upon its completion.
Without a doubt, A Violent Man is unexpectedly compelling. Thomas Jones and Khalilah Joi do strong work here as the central couple and their performances convey the strain under which the characters attempt to persevere. Their performances hold the whole film together, each scene filled with an affecting emotionality. Even though there are aspects which seem unusual or lack cohesion with the rest of the film and some performances which stand out as awkward, A Violent Man remains a thought-provoking work. What seems, at first, to be an indie crime thriller reveals itself, upon conclusion, to be much deeper in its examination of not just a soul cast into purgatory, but of fate itself. Was Ty destined to be a violent man, even a suspect in a murder? Or did he become the only thing left for him to be? While these are not the kinds of questions you’d expect to be asking by the end of A Violent Man, they’ll certainly keep you going for some time.
In theaters, on VOD, and iTunes February 8th, 2019.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.