Joe Bob Briggs looks at

The Arena (2001)


Joe Bob Goes to the Drive-In
By Joe Bob Briggs, Drive In Movie Critic of Grapevine, Texas

For the week of July 25, 2001


It took him a year to do it, but Roger Corman--the master of exploitation, producer of some 500 money-making movies, a man who's been in the business so long you would think he would be sick of it by now--has created yet another work of low-budget genius.

Normally, if Roger was planning to rip off "Gladiator," he would do it before "Gladiator" came out. He would spend $59.95, hire a couple kung-fu stars, weasel a recent USC graduate into directing, and build a Roman arena in somebody's backyard so that his movie could come out one week before "Gladiator" and take advantage of all the publicity.

But we live in the video age, and Roger must have been the first to realize that "Gladiator" was bigger on video than it was in the theaters, so he waited for the video release and then put out his masterpiece. Only, Roger being Roger, it had to be a female version of "Gladiator."

"Gladiator" remade with Playboy Playmates in the leads and a Russian cast and crew--yes, Roger Corman is at again, in one of his best movies of the past ten years, The Arena. So instead of Russell Crowe, he got two Playmates for the leads, including 1998 Playmate of the Year Karen McDougal. Ever since Roger's immortal "Sorceress," he's known that nothing creates box-office magic like a couple of babes in fish-net bras and tunics, wielding swords and catfighting with the barbarians.

And instead of Ridley Scott, he hired Timour Bekmambetov, the most famous director in . . . Kazakhstan! Where else? Roger was, of course, the first producer into Russia after Communism failed, because he knew that the actors and crews at Mosfilm and Lenfilm were among the most talented and the most in need of money in the world. He was able to build sets from the Mosfilm warehouse that would cost $10 million in America, and he got supporting players thrown into the bargain that would rival any actor in the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Oh yeah, then there was that old pesky problem of a script. But the wheels were turning already. Didn't the late John Corrington write a great script about female gladiators for one of those sword-and-sandal spaghetti-western factories in Rome? Ah! Here it is! "La Rivolta delle gladiatrici," later released in America as a 1973 vehicle for . . . Pam Grier! A Nubian slave forced by bored and corrupt Romans to fight to the death against a lily-white Viking slave, played by Margaret Markov, the sweet young thing frequently tortured and abused in women-in-prison movies. It was later released in the states--by Roger, of course- -as "The Arena," then, when it failed to perform under that title, as "Naked Warriors." Dust it off a little bit, update it to fit a blonde and brunette Playboy Playmate and a cast of Kazakhs and Russians, and--voila!--we have . . . "New Concorde's THE ARENA"! (Okay, the title didn't work the first time, but that was before "Gladiator" became the best-selling DVD of all time.)

This movie is tremendous, mostly due to the inspired direction of Bekmanbetov and the performance of Victor Verzhbitsky as the cruel provincial governor Timarchus, exiled to the farthest reaches of the empire, where he oppresses the half- wild populace and amuses himself with gladiatorial combat in an arena built especially for him by Legionnaires who hack down half the native forest to gather wood for it. He sends to Rome for slave girls and warriors, but he ends up with the dregs of the gladiator stock, property of an old crook-nosed trainer named Septimus. (Get it?) Anatoly Mambetov, as Septimus, is another brilliant Russian actor who does Timarchus' bidding, until the ruler grows bored with the available bloodsport and happens to see a kitchen fight among the slave girls. He orders Septimus to train them for combat, and soon the girls are taken from the flesh pits and armed with swords, tridents and shields.

The fighting is better than you would expect, and perhaps Bekmanbetov's greatest achievement was to make Playboy Playmates look like warriors. There's the usual Roman intrigue, all orchestrated by the sadistic Timarchus, culminating in contests for higher and higher stakes as the plot thickens and spins. Bekmanbetov is a master of the quick-cutting that Ridley Scott used in "Gladiator," using it for violence, sex, and sex-and- violence together, and the final slave-revolt sequence--which probably didn't use more than 30 extras--looks as grand as an MGM epic.

Blood, breasts and beasts--this one's got it all. Makes you wonder who else we could find in Kazakhstan.

Twenty-three dead bodies.
Eighteen breasts.
Arrow through the head.
Gladiator hacked in half.
Sword-flinging.
Multiple shield-thwacking.
Rape.
Pillage.
Spear through the gizzards.
Wooden sword-thrashing.
Slave-girl head-butting.
Pitchfork through the throat.
Eye-gouging.
Sword to the back.
Orgy.
Catfight.
Arm rolls.
Roman Legion break-dancing.
Gratuitous hand- hacking.
Gratuitous fire-juggling.
Thumbs-down Fu.
Drive-In Academy Award nominations for Lisa Dergan, as the Playboy Playmate slave girl with the big dramatic speech about the night her lover tattoed her chest by a beach campfire before the Romans slaughtered him; Victor Verzhbitsky, as the wicked ruler who says "Welcome to Dorostorum, ladies, the worst place in the world!"; Alexsei Osipov, as the oiled-up Bicep Monster who dies in the arena while his girlfriend is pouring wine on the governor; Severina Kamugisha, as the awkward girl so inept at fighting that the brutal gladiator trainer Septimus falls in love with her, only to doom them both; Leon Maximov, as the barbarian doomsayer ("Our land will be cursed forever!"); Karen McDougal, as the spitfire Playboy Playmate gladiator who screams "This is your land and these are your people! The time for asking is over!"; Anatoly Mambetov, as the old warrior Septimus, for saying "You don't need to escape--I'll kill him"; and Timour Bekmambetov, the director, for doing it the drive-in way.

Four stars. Joe Bob says check it out.

*

To check out Joe Bob's voluminous guide to all the B movies ever made, go to www.joebobbriggs.com or email him at JoeBob@upi.com. Snail-mail for the year 2002 is: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, TX 75221. Don't use those old email addresses from TNT Monstervision, they'll just end up in email hell.

Copyright 2001 United Press International and Joe Bob Briggs

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Not to be confused with that other "Arena" movie seen on MonsterVision's 100% Wierd: Arena


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