I love martial arts movies. Sometimes I just want to switch off my brain for 90 minutes and engage with a movie at a visceral level. That's what films like Circle of Pain are designed for. If you're looking for something to pass a friday night with some friends, some beer and some pizza, then this ought to go over perfectly well. That's not, however, to say that it's an especially good movie.
The story couldn't be more formulaic if it tried. It's that tired old tale of the fighter (karate champ Tony Schiena) with a dark past pulled out of retirement for one last bout against a younger up and comer (UFC fighter Heath Herring). Schiena has a roommate (Dean Cain) who has been confined to a wheelchair since they had an accident in the ring, and this haunts him so much he's never fought since, so he trains with the eccentric Willy (Louis Herthum, last seen in The Last Exorcism) to get over this block.
And then, oh then there's Bai Ling. Ling plays the owner of the Multiple Martial Arts franchise putting this bout on and does so in the riotously terrible way we've come to expect from her. She's an appalling actress, never for a second convincing as anything but the utterly insane Bai Ling, but her broken English and apparently equally broken mind are hilariously entertaining.
Next to Ling's lunatic display (watch for the scene where she shouts "shut fuck up" at her own crowd) the rest of the performances come off dull, but the cast aren't bad, considering that they are largely fighters rather than actors. Tony Schiena is flat, but Heath Herring has some charisma. The worst performance comes from Shannon Leppard, making an embarrassing debut as Schiena's ex wife.
But the story and performances aren't really the point. What people really want to know about when it comes to films like this is the fighting. If you're a fan of MMA then you'll likely love this film. The fights are plentiful and the pairings varied. For me, I can't quite get into MMA as a cinematic style. It seems to stake out a no man's land between the brutality of a style like Muay Thai or Hung Gar and the grace of Wushu or Wing Chun. The choreography does a good job of putting across the power of these fighters but personally I missed the lightning speed of a Yuen Biao, the humour of Jackie Chan and the groundbreaking choreography of their best work.
Ultimately Circle of Pain wasn't really for me, but if you like this sort of thing then you'll like this. It's an acceptable way to kill 86 minutes but personally, when I next reach for a martial arts film, it will probably have Sammo Hung in it rather than Tony Schiena.