Notorious Nick (2021)

Posted in Reviews by - September 01, 2021
Notorious Nick (2021)

“Notorious” Nick Newell is a retired mixed martial artist born with only one arm who became XFC Lightweight Champion in 2012. He is something of a disability icon, especially considering how he spent his entire competitive career fighting against non-disabled people. It makes his accomplishments even more incredible – almost too incredible to effectively work as theatre. For years, the sport tied itself in knots over the ethics of allowing Newell to compete at the highest level, with the UFC’s Dana White flatly refusing to have him join his organisation. There was also pushback from within the MMA community, with Newell accused of being used by promoters merely as a publicity stunt. This aptly lightweight biopic – co-produced by keen purveyor of the martial arts sports movie, Mark DiSalle, who made Bloodsport and Kickboxer – does venture cautiously into these more controversial topics, but not in any great detail, instead positioning the sport’s governance as just another obstacle for Newell to climb. Even as a child, Newell had to fight – from being bullied in the playground, wrestling at high-school, and following his best friend into the burgeoning MMA scene. The film uses his 2012 title bout as the culmination of Newell’s story, and anyone who has seen the real footage of the fight (it’s shown as the epilogue) will know that no reconstruction could ever do justice to the emotional and dramatic heft of watching the real thing. That’s not to diminish the film, which represents Nick’s story in a very earnest, respectful manner, if prone to bouts of melodrama. The young Cody Christian is really special in the lead role, managing to convincingly switch between coyness and aggression. He makes for a convincing MMA fighter with his lean physique and great groundwork – even if his left arm has been removed by a distractingly dodgy CGI operation. The fight scenes are staged well, but there is precious little in the way of grit or realism here, and we only ever get a sanitised version of Nick Newell and the sport he loves. Rather than exploring the roots of Newell’s singleminded devotion and willingness to risk his life in the ring, the film skirts around any deeper, existential themes and, as a result, his personality remains an enigma. Newell’s story is certainly extraordinary, and more people need to know about it, but maybe a documentary might have been more effective.

Notorious Nick is available on DVD and digital in the UK from 6 September courtesy of Dazzler Media.

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Editor and creator of Kung Fu Movie Guide and the host of the Kung Fu Movie Guide Podcast. I live behind a keyboard in London, UK.

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