So, when was the point western low budget (though The Tournament is low budget compared to mainstream cinema, and not compared to your typical Steve Austin vehicle) action movies turned good again? Or have I just been unlucky these last few years and always stumbled upon the bad ones while other films provided the warm glow of explosions and the merry colour of blood I was craving? It's a thing to get philosophical about, so please insert your own description of the cruelty of the universe here.
Scott Mann's The Tournament is the latest film convincing me to ask this bundle of questions, for lo, it is pretty great. The titular tournament, managed by a Mr Powers (Liam Cunningham), takes place all seven years in varying places around the globe. In it, thirty of the world's most dangerous assassins dumb, desperate, crazy or jaded enough to play in this sort of game, are set loose in an unsuspecting town or city in a battle to the death. Everyone has an electronic capsule implanted that shows them as nice little blips on their co-contestants' cells, and makes the whole thing easier to follow for the rich perverts betting on the game via the inescapable surveillance cameras. This time around, the game takes place in a city in the North of England. To make things more interesting, this year, the capsules not only work as tracking devices but will also blow the remaining contestants up if more than one of them is still alive after twenty-four hours of bullets and explosions.
Among the contestants are depressed Hong Kong killer Lai Lai Zhen (Kelly Hu), insane Texan with a penchant for cutting off fingers Miles Slade (Ian Somerhalder), French Parkour-based killer Anton Bogart (Parkour athlete Sebastien Foucau), last game's winner Joshua Harlow (Ving Rhames) and an assortment of meat played by people like Scott Adkins (as in many of his films inexplicably cast as a Russian) and Craig Conway. Harlow retired after the last game and is only taking part in the Tournament again because somebody killed his wife, and Powers has told him the killer is among the other contestants. Violence ensues, as was to be expected.
Things get more complicated when Bogart manages to cut out his tracer and smuggle it into the coffee of the disgraced alcoholic priest Father MacAvoy (Robert Carlyle), and turn the priest into bait. Fortunately for the priest, Zhen quickly realizes that he isn't an actual contestant, and even better for him, unlike Powers she actually cares. So Zhen decides to protect MacAvoy from sure death, which just might turn out to be the thing that saves herself as a human being.
As I said, The Tournament is pretty great fun, despite the obvious plot holes, and its need for its audience to believe in a criminal conspiracy so effective it can not only repeatedly organize this particular type of death match but keep it covered up despite the mass slaughter going on in public. The thing is, once the film has made its set-up clear, it treats the whole bit of silliness with unblinking seriousness, which always goes a long way with me if a film wants to convince me of a silly idea or three, and leaves me with no will to argue with it. Additionally, The Tournament's action is paced in the proper break-neck speed that makes it increasingly difficult to find time to nitpick.
These action scenes are pleasantly varied in style and approach too, so you get a bit of martial arts fighting, various bloody shoot-outs (there's not much gore but oh so very much splattering blood I couldn't help but think, "analyse this, Dexter Morgan"), as well as some car stunts, all culminating in a particularly great melange of all of these things. Even better, Mann may be prone to a bit faster editing than I generally prefer yet he never loses control of the scenes, so it is at least always clear who does what to whom in which position.
Even though the film's dramatic plotlines don't sound very interesting on paper (I bet most readers have already deduced the film's two biggish twists from the plot basics I provided), they do work rather well in humanizing the core characters, be they killers or not, providing film and audience with a reason to care for what happens with them.
The film's triple redemption plot does not lay things on too thick, either. It may not be very original but it works well grounding the carnage in something relatable and human, which often makes the difference for me between a competent action movie and a great one. The Tournament, also thanks to the simple yet effective performances by Hu, Carlyle and - to a lesser degree - Rhames, is rather a great one.