Producers: Howard Burd, Mark DiSalle and Mark S. Allen Director: Aaron Leong Screenplay: Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Darrin Reed Cast: Cody Christian, Elisabeth Röhm, Kevin Pollak, Barry Livingston, Cameron Matthews, Sammy Horowitz, James Hiser, Jonathan Cowley, Erik Sundquist, Conlan Kisilewicz, William Kelly and Marcellus Maxwell Distributor: Lionsgate
This real-life underdog sports movie, set in the world of mixed martial arts, is bound to remind you of “Rocky”—or, nowadays, of “Creed”—though with a twist. It’s riddled with clichés, but features some decent performances and well-staged fight scenes.
It also showcases a protagonist virtually impossible not to root for. Nick Newell was not only abandoned by his father when he was a kid, but had been born with only the upper half of a left arm. Yet he overcame this impediment and not only fulfilled his dream of becoming an MMA fighter, but, against all odds, won the light heavyweight championship in 2015.
The broad-brush script introduces Nick as a child (played by William Kelly) being bullied by other kids but befriended by Abi (Marcellus Maxwell), with whom he shares a love of wrestling. He’s also fortunate in that his single mom Stacey (Elizabeth Röhm) is incredibly supportive, not only emotionally but financially.
Springing forward, Nick has become a strapping teen plated by Cody Christian. He and Abi (Cameron Matthews) are prodded by their high school coach Jeremy Libiszewski (Barry Livingston) to join the wrestling team. Abi becomes a star, but despite his grit and determination, Nick doesn’t, and after losing a match he quits in frustration.
Abi suggests that they should both apply for a tryout for an opening in MMA competition, and under the watchful gaze of promoter Alex (Kevin Pollak), they both perform impressively. Abi is chosen for the spot, but when tragedy intervenes, it’s offered to Nick.
Cue the requisite training scenes with Jeremy, who’s agreed to serve as his coach again; episodes in which Stacey provides encouragement, even putting her bankbook on the line despite her concern for her son’s safety; and montage of match action, as Newell, nicknamed “Notorious Nick,” moves up the ranking ladder. There’s also a brief sequence in which Nick’s long-absent father appears to reconnect with his boy, and another in which Nick bolsters the spirit of a boy with a disability like his, just as he was helped when he doubted himself.
It all leads up to the big championship bout, of course, which is threatened by the refusal of the reigning champ Rich Reynolds (Sammy Horowitz) and his manager/brother (James Hiser) to participate in what they see as a mere publicity stunt. It takes an appeal to a MMA board and intervention by Alex to secure the match which—like the finale of any “Rocky” movie, involves a grueling fight that ends in triumph.
So “Notorious Nick” hews to a familiar template, and does not deviate from it, apart from eschewing any romantic subplot, unless you count the bromance between Nick and Abi. Even those who have ever heard of the real Nick Newell will have little difficulty predicting every turn the story takes.
Nonetheless Nick’s overcoming the odds stacked against him, and Christian’s creditable performance as Newell make it a watchable, if hardly exceptional, example of the popular sports underdog genre. The supporting cast Is capable, and as shot by cinematographer Brian Hamm and edited by Ian Webb, the fight sequences are convincingly brutal. Though Aaron Leong’s direction could hardly be called subtle and Julia Chase’s production design and Ben Worley’s score are just serviceable, the picture moves along at a decent clip and doesn’t overstay is welcome.
Embracing another cliché, “Notorious Nick” includes archival footage of Newell over the closing credits, including a brief interview with him and Libiszewski. Could one expect anything else?