El Yanqui is king of the extreme fighters in South America, a peerless pugilist with an eerily calm demeanor and a highly developed sense of sportsmanship. He allows opponents to pummel him for rounds on end, patiently absorbing punishment so his adversary can show off for the crowd; a chance to save a little face before El Yanqui suddenly rises up and serves defeat with a crushing knockout blow. With his manager and sidekick Manolo, this unstoppable fighter quickly rises to prominence, but he has no memory of the life he led before becoming a champion.
Five years earlier, his bullet-ridden body was surgically repaired thanks to the financial intervention of the local Mafioso, but why he was wounded or who he used to be is a mystery. The gangsters make a fortune on their investment, but the fighter keeps his center with prayer and clean living, eschewing women and wine and donating his winnings to the church. Tattooed on El Yanqui’s chest is the name “Marianne.” His memory is vague, but he believes she is a long lost love, and he has visions of her return. A bold, politically-motivated robbery will introduce him to the truth, and the collision between his past and present will be explosive.
Director and scribe Jesse Johnson is a former stunt man and a Black Belt in karate, so it’s no surprise he excels at capturing the tension of hand-to-hand combat. The viewer is cheek-to-cheek with the fighters in the ring, and each jarring punch can cause sympathetic concussions. There’s enough outrageous, gratuitous action to qualify “Pit Fighter” as this century’s answer to Jamaa Fanaka’s “Penitentiary,” but Johnson also has a few things to say about honor, dignity and male bonding along the way. He may not be as eloquent as either of the Big Sams (Fuller and Peckinpah), but Johnson shares their rangy intelligence, filling his characters’ mouths with pithy homilies on the sweet mysteries of brotherhood.
As the titular fighter, Dominique Vandenberg is a cipher, more believable as an amnesiac, monk-like figure than the cruel desperado that emerges in flashback. Still, his action sequences speak louder than any dialogue he could recite, and he’s charismatic in the ring, bringing grace to his brutality. Steven Bauer is great as his drunken, clownish manager. He’s the only truly whole character in “Pit Fighter,” a man so desperate to succeed that he lays himself bare to all, and he’s given one of the bravest death scenes ever recorded in cinema. The rest of the cast might be embodying clichés, but they’re ripe for the task, especially Fernando Carrillo as a sleazy “Scarface” wannabe with a penchant for doling out chunks of gangster wisdom to his adoring flunky.
Johnson employs a non-linear storytelling method that might strike some as a bit precious, but it doesn’t affect the flow of the action and the gradual revelation of El Yanqui’s past is effective. Between extreme boxing and graphic gunplay, the wall-to-wall brutality of “Pit Fighter” will overwhelm the casual viewer. There’s a bravura machine gun war complete with explosions and slow-mo squib abuse that changes the tone of the film somewhat at the conclusion, lapsing into Schwarzenegger-style bombast that feels downright silly after the intensity that precedes it. Regardless, fight film devotees will let loose cheers of bloodlust at the bristling action served up by this low-budget, upwardly-mobile feature.