In Arena Wars, it’s the year 2045. A dystopian society makes death row convicts fight to the death. Explosive charges in their skull detonate should they refuse. No pressure.

A dystopian society forces their most deranged criminals and lowlifes to fight in death matches broadcast to the public for their viewing pleasure. It’s a concept popularized in films such as The Condemned (Steve Austin 2007), Death Race (Jason Statham 2008), and Gamer (Gerard Butler 2009). More recently, Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) took audiences on a wild ride of do-or-die in the bonkers flick Guns Akimbo (2019). Director Brandon Slagle (The Flood 2023) and Mahal Empire (Night of the Tommyknockers 2023) now unleash their own brand of criminal death match pandemonium with their latest indie scifi feature Arena Wars. Does it fall flat or does it hold its own? Let the games begin.

Welcome to the year 2045 when a dystopian society has found a new way of dealing with hardened criminals awaiting death row. Taking UFC fight night to deadly extremes, the planet’s highest rated televised sporting event, Arena Wars, offers convicts a shot at a full pardon. They merely must fight seven armed ruthless killers to the death. With no weapons. And an explosive implant in their skull ready for detonation should they refuse.

Setting an excellent tone for an unnerving look into dark societal impulses, Arena Wars opens with the roar of a bloodthirsty crowd. Facing off against a pickaxe wielding beast that would make My Bloody Valentine‘s Harry Warden defecate his coveralls, an inmate reaches the homestretch to freedom. However, his finish line dash is stopped short by Cutie Pie (Maria Bova), one of Arena Wars’ psychotic champions.

Even in the future no one stays on top forever. When ratings begin slipping with the loss of public interest, Arena Wars’ CEO Belladonna (Kevin Hager: Bloodthirst 2023) finds his livelihood threatened. The solution? He needs a hero. Cue Connie Taylor’s ’80s hit song Holding Out for a Hero. I’m only joking. This song is never used … although it could’ve made for a laugh-out-loud side-splitting scene if properly executed amplifying the already present comedic touch.

John Wells as Luke Bender

Unassisted by Connie Taylor, Belladonna finds his hero worthy of audience praise when wrongfully convicted inmate Luke Bender (John Wells: Bermuda Island 2023) lands on the conniving businessman’s radar. Given the choice between lethal injection or the demented game show, Bender picks the latter fighting alongside death row inmates in the dystopian gladiator games.

Although his character’s conviction backstory is incredibly vague, Wells gives an exceptional performance as someone who’s been knocked down, but gets up again (because you’re never gonna keep him down — cue Chumbawamba’s ’97 hit song Tubthumping, which could have also been hilariously used for comedic purposes).

Michael Madsen as Arena Wars’ commentator Samson

Other notable performances include Hager as the type of sleazy CEO you’d love to punch in the face. Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs 1992) brings out his inner Celebrity Deathmatch commentator owning his role as the wisecracking Arena Wars’ host. Frequent Mahal Empire collaborator Robert LaSardo (Death Race 2008) briefly brings to life an inmate whose cocky arrogance leads to his death while award-winning actor Eric Roberts (The Dark Knight 2008) gives a small cameo.

Missed opportunities for clever over-the-top ridiculousness aside, Arena Wars is a wild adrenaline-infused gore-fest about injustice and ethical boundaries of entertainment. Most people in their right mind would like to think the envelope would never be pushed this far in real life. This makes Mahal Empire’s latest multi-genre release not only an explosive thrill-ride, but a cautionary tale of madness and mayhem.

Brandon Long
Brandon Long