Film Review: Violent Entertainments with “Arena Wars”

arena wars (2024) - movie poster one sheetIt’s the future and society is run by amoral rich white guys who head up large corporations. The poor and downtrodden accept the status quo because, in the style of ancient Rome, they are entertained by increasingly violent TV shows. Bread and circuses meet the near future in the violent, predictable, and yet oddly satisfying “Arena Wars”. This is a low budget, indie sci-fi thriller with a few familiar faces (Michael Madsen! Eric Roberts! Robert LeSardo!) that leans heavily on earlier genre films, notably Death Race 2000 (1975), but is mostly is a mashup of the Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner The Running Man (1987) and the earlier James Caan film Rollerball (1975).

It’s 2045 in “The Big F*cking City” and the televised entertainment for the masses is the titular Arena Wars, a violent to-the-death battle between flashy gladiators and teams of death row convicts. The promise: Survive seven rooms and seven gladiators and you win your freedom! Reality: The only person who has ever survived the murderous gauntlet, Boggs (BJ Mezek), is one of the guards trying to keep things organized behind the scenes.

The hosts of the show are perpetually upbeat Steven (Michael Madsen) and Joe (Robert Donavan). The gladiators have colorful names and crazy, low-budget costumes (right out of The Running Man) while the convicts, errr, contestants are clad in orange prison jumpsuits and have their wits and bodies to defend themselves. Tough cons like Perez (Robert LaSardo) and Billie (Kylie Fulmer) are ready to go, but the others? Grist for the splattery mill, with amusingly cheesy visual effects.

arena wars (2024) - publicity still with Robert LaSardo

Perez (Robert LaSardo) ready to rumble, from “Arena Wars”

Our hero is Luke Bender (John Wells), a Marine who is on death row either because he followed orders and killed someone while protecting the President from an assassin or, possibly, was framed with faked video footage. Either way, he’s a quiet and peaceful inmate, so is not picked as one of the initial contestants from Rodimus Federal Prison [Rodimus, aka Hot Rod, is from Transformers]. When contestant team #1 does poorly, team #2 is assembled, with Perez, Billie, and, you guessed it, Bender trying to survive against the violent gladiators who intend to eliminate them in the most graphic and TV-friendly way possible.

There’s little in the Arena Wars story that hasn’t been explored in previous sci-fi actioners in this genre and the performances, visual effects, and sets are distinctly b-list, but there is some entertainment to be had with the fight sequences and MST3K-esque dialog. It’s also interesting for viewers to contemplate the lazy portrayal of class and race in these films; why hasn’t this changed in the last few decades? Ultimately, the logic behind the most violent of death row inmates earning their freedom by killing other people escapes me, but… perhaps that’s part of the goofy charm of this low-budget action thriller.


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dave taylor vertigo film swirl backgroundPlanet Dave is run by Dave Taylor, who has been writing about film, cars, games, and his lifestyle for many years. He's based in Boulder, Colorado and assures readers he's only occasionally falling into a gravity well or temporal distortion field.

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