Review: Arena (1989)
Arena is one of the most ambitious movies ever to come out of Charles Band's Empire Pictures. It's essentially Rocky in space, but in today's world of 300 million dollar blockbusters, we must remember that this movie was made in an era where CGI had not yet become a reliable or affordable tool and most of what we see on screen was achieved with rubber suits, matte shots, and clever photography, all captured in a formerly-abandoned studio in Rome without benefit of Hollywood unions or oversight.
Confession: I never found Arena to be particularly compelling. Until recently I'd only seen Arena in standard definition and in a 4:3 "full frame" presentation. Thanks to a recent restoration by Arrow Video for Blu-ray which sources a widescreen HD version of the film from a 35mm print, I'm now viewing this exploitation gem through a whole new lens. The costumes are stunning. The sets are massive. The world is created fully and with much detail, belying its low budget and B-movie origins. Don't get me wrong, this movie isn't able to compete with The Terminator or Star Wars, but considering how it was made and the small team who brought it to life, it's a miracle. Now I'm a believer.
Part of the magic no doubt comes from screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, the wunderkind writers behind previous Empire Pictures hits Zone Troopers, The Eliminators and Trancers. They were about to achieve much bigger success as the creators/showrunners of TV's The Flash series (the 1990 show, not the Berlanti-verse one) and as writers of 1991's The Rocketeer. In a recent interview (sourced for the Arrow release I mentioned), Bilson goes on record to say that he and De Meo were huge fans of classic cinema, specifically films of the 1930s and 1940s, and that they had repurposed the plot from the 1947 boxing film Body and Soul, starring John Garfield, for Arena. Bilson admits to being really frustrated that the script he and De Meo turned in was heavily tinkered with and watered down, removing all of the nuance and character beats in favor of big, dumb, kid-friendly action. He says they were trying to make something with real dramatic heft but the filmmakers turned it into a cartoon, resulting in the departure of Bilson and De Meo not just from Arena, but from Empire Pictures altogether.
While I can only imagine how much better Arena could have been with such high-reaching source material, what we end up with on screen is perfect for a Saturday night. We have a rookie fighter (played by Paul Satterfield) who must navigate the challenges of fame and ego as he ascends to the top. We have bad guys who are truly evil and represent the particular brand of corporate sleaze that inhabited the 1980s. We even have a femme fatale in the form of a singer played by Sheri Shattuck, who has perhaps never looked more beautiful...or dangerous.
Arena has gone from being a movie that I didn't care for to being one of my favorite Empire Pictures productions. Exploitation movies have a reputation for being cheap and for not trying very hard. They often lie to get your cash and if they deliver what they promise at all, it's usually in the last reel of the picture. Not so with Arena. What would have happened if Empire Pictures had endured the financial storm and managed to not only stay in business, but to continue to grow? Could they have competed with the kinds of high-concept, mid-budget exploitation that Cannon was producing? We can only wonder, but Arena--and the subsequent Robot Jox--gives us a glimpse at what might have been.
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