The Fight Within, a Christian-themed movie about a reluctant Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter, begins with Logan Chandler (John Major Davis) honing his skills working out at the punching bag. With each jab and thrust he flashes back to his father angrily admonishing him for some error in form or perceived error in character. The training montage immediately invokes memories of The Great Santini, of course. Or Tree of Life. Or The Karate Kid. Or any of a dozen films where the father or father figure misshapes the boy into a misshapen man by encouraging him to fight.
Logan eventually has his fill of his dad’s bullying masquerading as character building and finally rebels against his father’s authority. The result is predictable but tragic, and Logan swears off fighting for psychological rather than spiritual reasons.
I want to underscore that point. There are some signs that the movie wants to challenge–or at least explore–conventional notions of Christian masculinity. My disappointment is not so much that the film is more willing than I would be to accept cultural definitions of masculinity that depend on violence. Rather, my disappointment is that having introduced a Christian voice (in the form of Logan’s girlfriend) into the world of MMA, it never really allows that voice to impact that culture.
Logan may have some minor misgivings about whether fighting fits into this whole God thing, but they are too quickly and easily dispatched by a wizend old Black man who tells him God has always fought through warriors. Then Logan’s nemesis, a rising MMA star who wants to avenge his only loss, pretty much forces Logan into the cage by threatening innocent loved ones.
Even then, is violence inevitable? The Fight Within drops on DVD within a month of Mel Gibson’s more heralded and lauded Hacksaw Ridge, which documents its Christian hero’s unwillingness to wield a gun, even in the face of imminent death. Then again, Gibson’s film also underplays its protagonist’s religious motivations, also anchoring his pacifism more in childhood trauma than in religious principle. Thus, while the films end up on opposite sides of the non-debate regarding masculinity and violence, neither effectively links its position to Christian doctrine. Neither really tries. Hacksaw is content to assert its hero is masculine even though he doesn’t fight. The Fight Within is content to assert its hero is godly even though he does.
There is Christian content here, but it is more generic. Logan sits in on a class lecture about ethics that could more or less be dropped into any Christian movie about any subject. Ditto an altar call following a sermon at his girlfriend’s church. (The fact that the movie never again depicts Logan as a student after the lecture shows that it is only interested in making him one in order to a little telling where showing might be more difficult.) At one point Logan’s girlfriend gives a layman’s recitation of Pascal’s wager. I give The Fight Within credit for having Logan at least question one of the premises, but then the sermon sells the Bible as superior to “psychology” and Logan appears to fall primarily for the promise that he can feel good about himself.
That’s a little odd, given the film’s title. That fight within turns about to be about nothing more than whether or not to fight, and once Logan realizes he has no reason not to fight, well God is in his corner and who doesn’t want to see a bully beaten by an anointed warrior?