Arena Wars reaches new heights for a crowdfunded movie

When watching movies from certain studios, whether major or independent, once established, most tend to produce movies that meet their audience’s expectations from that studio. With a big studio like Disney, I expect the family-friendly formula that hits all the usual emotional notes, sends a character on a hero’s journey, and wraps up neatly and nicely, leaving just enough room for a sequel. When I watch a horror movie from Blumhouse, I typically expect a young adult-oriented movie with a few jump scares, and just enough violence to keep horror hounds happy while meeting the MPAA requirements for a PG-13 movie. With an Asylum movie, I don’t expect much more than a goofy rip-off with some known names, and (hopefully) a fun ride.

That brings us to the Mahal Empire. Now that they have a dozen or so movies under their belts, I have expectations. The Mahal Empire has made a name for itself by crowdfunding large chunks of its movies through Indiegogo, producing movies with recognizable names and faces, and having a littering of actors who purchased crowdfunding perks to be in a movie or act alongside better-known actors. None of this is a knock, these are the expectations.

With each successive movie from the Mahal Empire, I have noticed that they have continually improved in technical quality. “Arena Wars” looks and plays out like a commercial studio movie. The set design, the production value, the action choreography, and the costume design exceed (by far) anything we have seen previously from the Mahal Empire.

“Arena Wars” is the most complete and satisfying movie to emerge from these independent auteurs.

The movie is set in the not-so-distant future of 2045 and in a gladiator-esque fashion, the prisoners are given the opportunity to fight in the arena before a bloodthirsty crowd, where the winner is granted freedom. There’s not much to it after that, and there doesn’t need to be in this type of movie. The characters are paper thin, but again, we’re not looking for depth and deeper motivations here. In most aspects, the movie achieves its goals, and throws in some intentional comedy to lighten the atmosphere between moments of brutality.

In some of the Mahal Empire’s past projects, while mostly entertaining, some of the faults stand out significantly more. However, with “Arena Wars,” Director Brandon Slagle, does a fine job of guiding veteran actors alongside of the less experienced actors, and the story itself, makes better use of this combination.

Many crowdfunded movies sell perks allowing up-and-coming actors to build their resumes or giving fans an opportunity to be in a movie, and that’s fine–there has been a pay-to-play element on the sliver screen since the dawn of Hollywood.

What most of them do not do well, is find a way to make these types of actors a useful part of the story and plot. More often than not, these actors are in what looks like a wedding receiving line rather than stage blocking meant for a movie, where they can each recite the lines they paid for in a way that does not relate to the movie at all. The result in these instances, ends up feeling like a high school play that has to give everyone a part. This is not the case for “Arena Wars.” While the movie does have some of this, it mostly works and fits into the plot, but most importantly it does not spoil the verisimilitude of this world.

“Arena Wars” has some recognizable faces in Michael Madsen and Eric Roberts, and veteran actors such as Robert LaSardo and Robert Donovan. The rest of the cast is made up of Mahal Empire regulars, many of whom are coming into their own as actors.

Slagle is also credited as the lead writer with brothers Sonny and Michael Mahal having developed the story. The story itself is a run-of-the-mill “Running Man,” “Death Race” type tale with criminals having a chance to fight to the death for their freedom. With this type of action movie, there are also expectations, and Slagle manages to hit all of the right beats from start to finish.

What Slagle does best with “Arena Wars” is to make use of the tools that he has been provided with for this movie. His writing caters to the strengths and weaknesses of the actors, and succeeds where most of these crowdfunded movies fail. It tells a complete story that is satisfying to a viewer, and not simply satisfying to those who have bought perks.

I first became aware of the Mahal Empire with “Art of the Dead.” This was a fun, well-made movie. Since then, their movies have gotten bigger. Recent flicks, such as “Bermuda Island” and “Night of the Tommyknockers are fun, big, B-movies, more similar with the expectations a viewer might have from Asylum and SyFy Channel movies.

“Arena Wars” feels different. If someone completely unaware of the Mahal Empire were to find this movie, they’d probably just think to themselves, this is an entertaining action movie. It has a straight-forward plot, some fun characters, some gratuitous nudity, and plenty genre-befitting violence.

While “Arena Wars” does not break any new ground in the action genre, it does set a high bar for independent filmmakers crowdfunding movies.

In recent years, I have seen and heard indie filmmakers time and again take great pride in crowdfunding a movie, making sure everyone knows they don’t have any experience, did not go to film school but they’re making a movie anyway, will learn on the fly, and ultimately produce a movie that is a complete waste of time for the cast and crew, and most importantly, the viewer, but again, “Arena Wars” succeeds where many fail.

Many independently crowdfunded movies are produced under the weight of a filmmaker’s ego. “Arena Wars” is an independent movie that showcases the talent of a filmmaker like Brandon Slagle. A lesser filmmaker given the same script and same resources, would have had every opportunity to fall flat, but Slagle rises above and succeeds in fine fashion.

“Arena Wars” says to viewers and would-be filmmakers, this is what you can do when you make great use of the available resources, have a team of people that believe, and a leader in Slagle who is experienced and clearly knows what he is doing.

by Ed Blackadder

Ed’s Grade: B+