The Arena (2001)

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arena2001A remake of the 1974 film of the same name, starring Pam Grier and Margaret Markov, it’s a case of “good news, bad news”; some of the changes are improvements, while others are perhaps not as well thought-out. Firstly, McDougal and Dergan fall some way short of Grier and Markov – while I may have criticised their fighting abilities, at least they both had more than adequate screen presence. McDougal and Dergan are, first and foremost, Playboy playmates, and were clearly employed for this reason, rather than any acting ability. Though, as in the original, the quantity of skin on view is actually pretty limited – this is even more surprising, given our heroines’ background.

Bekmambetov’s directorial style is very stylish and flashy, probably too much so; you’ll frequently find yourself wishing he would keep the camera still and pointing in one direction, as well as laying off on the whizzy optical effects. There are moments when it does work, but particularly in the arena battles, it looks as if they are trying to distract the viewer from inadequacies that would otherwise be painfully obvious.

On the plus side, tweaks to the story-line have probably been for the better. The setting is moved to a far outpost of the Empire, which renders the final revolt much more plausible. The focus of the film is also shifted, with more emphasis being given to the doomed romance between slave-trainer Septimus and one of his gladiatorettes. This did exist in the 70’s version, but was really more of a sideplot; here, it gets boosted and is actually quite effective, not least because the actor playing Septimus (Mambetov) has an amazing face, full of character. The climax now sees local governor Timarchus pitted against his own gladiators, obviously inspired by Russell Crowe and Joaquim Phoenix’s duel.

The Russian locations, mainly near St. Petersburg, work well for the most part; the central arena is dropped in the middle of a blasted forest, leaving it looking like a crashed spaceship. Actually, that’s perhaps the point, in that the Romans were, to the locals, an alien race with gladiatorial combat and other bizarre customs. But by most accounts, conditions on the shoot were pretty basic – Karen Macdougal’s comments on the DVD are especially revealing here, not least where she says she never wants to go back to the country! Apart from the two heroines, the rest of the cast (including the wonderfully-named Severina Kamugisha Kemirimbe) are local, and consequently their performances are dubbed, not badly, but one suspects towards mediocrity.

Overall, this remake isn’t a disaster, and stands on its own without too much difficulty. The problem is, that if you’ve seen the original, the new one doesn’t bring all that much to the party, save for some hyperactive camerawork. We can’t really blame Macdougal and Durgan – they received precisely four hours training for their swordfighting – but you can only wonder how much of the film’s obvious potential might have been realised, if Corman had hired actresses with actual combat skills.

Dir: Timur Bekmambetov
Star: Karen McDougal, Lisa Dergan, Viktor Verzbitsky, Anatoly Mambetov

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