There are bad movies out there. There are some truly awful pieces of celluloid in existence. The fact that these things keep getting produced shows that someone, somewhere, is watching them. Paul ‘Logan Blaze’ Anderson is one such person, who tends to find something ANYTHING of merit in some of the most despised pieces of film history. Except Picnic at Hanging Rock. Never bring up Picnic at Hanging Rock. Join Logan as he tries to convince you that a questionable film deserves some attention. Yes, Logan Blaze is…….
The Bad Movie Apologist
On the edges of the known universe, a space station brings together the many disparate alien species to meet, trade and vie for peace. However, the harmony of the station is being threatened by the machinations of the villainous Gul Dukat, aided by his sneaky sidekick, Quark. Only the courageous Susan Ivanova can end their evil plans. No - this is not some weird Deep Space Nine/Babylon 5 fanfic (those come later) - this is the 1989 sci-fi boxing epic - Arena.
There is no escaping the fact that Arena is basically Rocky in space. In the year 4038, a universe spanning fighting championship culminates in combat in The Arena, held on a space station. The current champion is a cyborg minotaur-like alien called Horn. He is managed by Rogor, played with aplomb by Mar Alamio, the man who would later become one of the best Trek villains, Gul Dukat. Which is a little ironic when his side-kick - Weezil - who helps Rogor fix the fights, is played by Armin Shimerman, the man who would become Quark, the bartender on Deep Space Nine.
Watching this fight while he is supposed to be working is short-order cook and professional Christopher Reeve look-a-like - Steve Armstrong. Now Steve Armstrong has perhaps the most normal name in the entire film, which I believe is meant to show how ‘everyman’ he is. Plus - you know - ARM STRONG - everywhere in these bad films is nominative determinism.
As we soon learn Stevie is a fighter. This soon becomes clear after he has to defend his fellow cook from disgruntled customers as he literally kicks a fish-headed alien out of the window.This gets him and his four-armed co-worker, Shorty, fired. However, Shorty has a place in the space station’s pipe system, populated by its underclass. Shorty is your Derek Trotter type of wheeler dealer though, so the pair end up living in the better conditions than there would have on the main station.
Their relative peace is broken, however, when Stevie has to whip out the guns again and take on two of Quinn’s associates. Quinn is not happy that Stevie took down fish head as he was her last standing fighter, and he is now injured. The motive for this attack seems a little twisted. The two associates are taking out their anger on Stevie, but Quinn’s actions are more involved. It is not clear if it is full revenge, or if Quinn wants to see Stevie in action. Either way, when she steps out of some convenient steam
Stevie’s first fight is with a HUGE insect like creature. It may not be that surprising that Screaming Mad George and Steve Wang were involved with the special effects, as many of the creatures have their style. Indeed, many of the aliens could be considered to be proto-zoanoids from Guyver (we WILL get to that film at some point). The first alien Steve fights looks a little like the Zoalord at the end of Guyver/Mutronics as well.
After some settling in, Steve wins his bout and - as the first human fighter in Arena for so long - gets quite a bit of attention. This attention includes Rogor (who I want to call Roger now - that name is jst so close), who now wants him as a draw in his stable. Steve wisely refuses, just settling the debt between them before - FIGHTING MONTAGE - going on to win a slew of more bouts .
In the end, he is given his title shot, much to the chagrin of Rogor. His control of the title holder allows him defacto control of the station. As such, he seeks to make sure Steve does not win. To this end, he sends his girlfriend, Jade, who had caught Steve’s eye, to seduce and then poison Steve on the night of the fight. SIGH to be young again.
As Steve gets ringside, Rogor goes nuts, with the proto-Gul in full wide eyed maniac mode. Panicking, he uses Weezil and Brain - a cyborg with - well an exposed brain - to hack the handicapper. Steve finds all his strength sapped and an easy mark for Horn in the opening rounds. That is until Shorty notices something is wrong, stops the hack, killing Brain, then pushes Weezil off a gantry to fall to his death in the crowd. Shorty does NOT mess around. Now, there IS no handicapper. Steve is back to his normal full strength, but so is Horm. Despite this, Steve still wins, Rogor is defeated, and Quinn lays out Jade who goes seeking for forgiveness from Steve. All that is missing as the scene slows to a freeze frame is a Vince DiCola anthem, but the film does try.
ROLE CREDITS and (for once) no suggestion of a sequel
Many of the good things for Arena, also work against it in other ways. The plot is simplistic, having the same through thread as most underdog sports films. This allows for some comfort in the film, something we understand and can follow. However, this also becomes jarring when you stick the sci-fi elements around it. There is no attempt to try and explain why such combat has spread all around the universe .The watcher is forced to assume all sentient life in the universe likes to see two people bash themselves to near unconsciousness. Other films in the era tack a political element into such matters, such as the use of one-on-one combat to decide border disputes. Here, the universe just loves a barny, which can feel a little jarring.
The effects are top notch for the time, if not ahead of its time, with an emphasis on practical effects from a team which would go on to do similar good work through the 90’s and beyond. However, for the most part, this partly works against the combat scenes. The head sculpts and animatronics are amazing, but whoever has to wear this suit and fight just cannot perform. It does make watchers wonder why, if strength is no longer an issue, why the more agile humans have not continued in the sport. To show where Screaming Mad George and co go with there skills while still allowing combat, you only need to go once again to Guyver, this time to the sequel, Dark Hero, where the combat is MUCH more fluid while not sacrificing the effects.
The acting is for the most part is really good. No-one is going to win an Oscar, but thy are not pulling you out of the fil. They sell their characters well in both physical action and line delivery. For the most part. The let down is Steve though. Paul Satterfield is not bad, but he is very much a one note pony. The earnest farm boy wanting to do good. His character progression from unsure cook to confident fighter is a little too quick and he is so naive you wonder how he survived this long. While these are flaws with the character itself rather than Paul’s depiction, Satterfield does not really push it beyond this paper-thin overview. All the other principles have some pathos, periods of internal conflict. SOMETHING which takes them a little beyond one-note cliche.
Beyond the effects and acting, there also the world building done here. There is a definite caste system. There is work put into explaining the interaction of jobs and accommodation on the station. There is backstory for most of the principles which actually inform their current actions. You have no idea how rare that was at the time, where often people seemed to just act on impulse, or things happen coincidentally rather than due to the actions of another player working on their plot thread. Yes, the depth of all this is not much, but the fact t exists at all is more than welcome. For example, when Shorty effectively steals from Rogor, he uses the money to buy a Steve a ticket home, something he has been after from scene one. However, when they are caught it is highlighted he also used some of the money to send home to his family, which was also indicated at the start of the film. Its a throwaway line which does not move the plot, but it paints the world and the characters better.
This is an Empire Pictures gig, and one where they have just hit their stride. Unfortunately, this was released just as the Empire fell, leaving Charles Band to move on to Full Moon Pictures. However, Arena is a fine film to mark the closing era of Empire. Robot Jox - one of the best from Empire, was released a year later, after Empire had officially been bought out, but you can see many of the same traits in the films. The above-standard effects for the time and budget, the quality casting and direction and - above all - the fun and wonder. Whatever Empire did, there is that element of excitement. Empire did fun pulp cinema at its best.
As such, this gets
Three boxing gloves out of five