Twelve fighters are brought together to compete in an illegal underground tournament for the prize of £500,000, should they survive. The oddball group include a homeless man (Mark Strange), an ex-convict (Nathan Lewis), a triad (Leon Suah) and even a priest (Glenn Salvage), each risking life and limb in a series of brutal bouts that eliminate contenders one by one. Presiding over the tournament is a seemingly impassive organiser (Fidel Nanton) who takes bets from an array of wealthy business types (including Red Dwarf and M.I. High star Danny John-Jules and Minder’s Gary Webster) over who will win or lose. As each fighter is eliminated, his backer is forced to pull out while the stakes get higher.
With martial arts so ingrained in their culture, Chinese movies can weave kung fu bouts into historical epics, thrillers and comedies but western efforts always fall back on the old tournament scenario. This indie action Brit flick harks back to innumerable, direct-to-video bare-knuckle brawl fests from the Eighties and boasts an overused reality TV premise that brings back painful memories of The Condemned (2007), but perhaps wisely sidesteps any attempt at satire. “This isn’t just mindless violence” says the organiser at one point, but to a large extent that is exactly what this is.
Breaking the martial arts film down to its barest essentials, without even the cod-James Bond setup that distinguished Enter the Dragon (1973), 12 (re-titled Underground for the overseas market) is certainly solid on the action front. British born triple-threat Chee Keong Cheung assembles a slick package utilising blistering editing, diverse film stocks and ferocious fight choreography by Dave Forman (who was once Leonardo in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)), but the non-stop punch-ups grow repetitive and the corny melodrama fails to engage. The cast are clearly fantastic athletes though noticeably less competent with dialogue. Cheung wisely pares his fighters’ dialogue down to a minimum and relies on cinematic shorthand to convey their emotional states, but as a consequence they emerge less interesting than their sponsors.
Much of the drama centres around besuited character actors glowering at each other across the betting table, though Cheung avoids the trap of painting all rich people as blood-sucking leeches. Some backers withdraw from the tournament in disgust, others are unexpectedly moved by the fighters’ plight and offer their help. The film exhibits a lot more humanity than movies like The Condemned, dwelling on moments of pathos as when the defeated Instructor (William Mickleburgh) is shown sobbing in the shower, or the supposedly misogynistic Model (Joey Ansah) tearfully apologises to the comely Teacher (Zara Phythian) whom he has mangled into a bloody pulp, or the friendship that complicates the crucial bout between the Delinquent (Beau Fowler) and the Foreigner (Liang Yang). The latter initially seems to be the Bruce Lee style, enigmatic wild card but things come down to the two least interesting and similar fighters, though this at least prevents things becoming predictable. Ultimately, 12 comes across as a fight movie made for fighters and fight enthusiasts and pretty much no-one else, especially given how it is in no way critical of the illegal, exploitative tournament even though it costs one man his life. Which leaves it admirable as a piece of indie filmmaking, but one-dimensional and liable to provoke questions. Like how does a homeless guy know how to handle a samurai sword and since the priest is competing to raise money for a homeless shelter, why didn’t he try a bake sale? It’s much safer.