New VOD Releases: Rag Doll (2020)-Reviewed

An underdog fighter with their back against the world, taking on the odds in pursuit of a better life for themselves and their loved ones. It's a tale that's been done many, many times but rarely with a woman at the center. There's the terrific Karyn Kusama-directed Girlfight or Clint Eastwood's Oscar Winning Million Dollar Baby but in general, fighting has been seen more as a "man's" sport than anything else. Even in the mostly fictitious world professional wrestling, it's only been within the last two to three years that women's wrestling has been taken seriously enough to main event pay-per-views. In the world of MMA, it was Ronda Rousey who took the fighting world by storm and showed the public that women can do this as well, if not better, than the men. 

It's with all of that in mind that I went into Rag Doll hoping for the best. A woman-fronted MMA movie that takes on what the lower class has to go through just to survive and provide? Awesome! Unfortunately while director Bailey Kobe and star Shannon Murray clearly have the best of intentions, the film just doesn't make it out of the first round.

Murray, who also produces, plays Nora, a down on her luck hotel cleaner who has to scrounge money together just to make ends meet. On top of that, her mother has Stage IV cancer and requires constant care and medication. In her limited free time, Nora trains at an MMA gym just to let off steam. One day she hears about a tournament whose winnings will offer not only an escape from her miserable life but the money she desperately needs to take care of her mother. She has one chance to make it all better and it's this tournament.

The problems in this film are many but the biggest issue is one, the fighting, and it manifests itself in two different ways. To put it bluntly, the fighting is abysmal. There's no other way around it. In a film where the key component is the fighting, making it look authentic should be the primary concern. Iffy scripting and performances can largely be overlooked in a fight movie if the choreography is solid. The problem here is that our lead's inexperience within the film is never expanded upon. We see her train but we barely see her get better. Murray herself doesn't make matters any better by looking lost through every fight. That would be fine in the early stages of the narrative when Nora is struggling. But when we get to the tournament, she needs to have some level of believability. That never comes.  

What makes this tricky is that in doing some background research on the film, you'll find that the filmmakers stress that a heavy "MMA" presence was around during filming. They talk up the fact that all the women involved are heavily involved in MMA and they link to their fight choreographer, Martin Wheeler, which lists some authentic bonafides. One would like to give the benefit of the doubt but the fight scenes are downright atrocious. If the lack of training was one issue, the second is how the fights are shot. This is where I think the real problem is. Every fight is shot in slo-mo with frequent use of closeups. Every single fight. There's no sense of tension or direction and every fight immediately has the air sucked out of it because you can't really tell what's happening. And when you can, there's no rhythm because it's all at one speed. It's wonderful that they had experts on hand to choreograph it all but when the filmmaking is this poor, none of that matters. It would be easy to say that it's on the choreographer or on the actors but the lack of believability begins with the director and his choices are baffling, at best.

The film surrounding the fighting isn't any better. It attempts to grapple with class, problems in our healthcare, sex work and, maybe most enraging because of how it's handled, mental illness. But nothing is said or done in service to any of what it's trying to comment on. And once again, that's all on the filmmakers. Darren Longley's script is reaching at things but whether it's a failing on his part or how Kobe directed the film, it just all falls apart.

The script feels nonexistent because most scenes devolve into what feels like improv as the actors yell back and forth at each other, sometimes looking confused as to what to say next. Scenes drag on and on with no rhyme or reason and the actors look adrift at sea. Interpersonal relationships never develop because the haphazard editing either forces the performers to keep talking or cuts them off at the legs. Either way, there's not a single believable interaction here. Nora's relationship with her mother isn't earned because the performances aren't up to the task. Stephanie Erb plays her mother and she's meant to be a foul-mouthed, badass woman who says "fuckin" this and "fuckin" that at every turn. But Erb is so noncommittal in her performance that she seems genuinely afraid to say "fuck." It becomes a bit embarrassing after a certain point because the energy this role required just wasn't there. Instead of the hard living, mouth-like-a-sailor the film thinks she is, she comes off like a child who looks like she got away with saying a bad word. 

A love story pops up between Nora and Jason (Dante Basco) because he helps pay for her mother's medication in the beginning. The film forgets about him for way too long and when pops back up, we're supposed to believe that there's any romance here. It's staggering how inept it all is. None of this is more apparent than the ending. It's an ending I won't spoil but my god, if there was any goodwill for this film at all, the ending kills it. It's such a wrong-headed move that undercuts the entire film both narratively and thematically. None of it adds up, it's lazy and it's hard not to let out a laugh once you catch on. It feels tacked on to a story that wasn't leading to it and didn't need it.

Rag Doll has its head and heart in the right places but it never coalesces into anything deserving of a watch. Awful fight choreography, painful dialogue and terrible filmmaking on almost every front relegate this to one of the worst movies you'll see this year. It's a shame because we need more films like it.

-Bradon Streussnig