Christian Sesma’s previous film Section Eight (2022) had a decent pedigree in terms of action stars and acting legends. Not only did it feature performances from action legends like Dolph Lundgren and Scott Adkins, but the likes of Dermot Mulroney and Mickey Rourke made up part of the supporting cast. What made Section Eight at least watchable was some decent action scenes and the appearances from those aforementioned action stars.
The film’s main issue came with lead actor Ryan Kwanten. A good performer when given the right material, Kwanten paled in comparison when put up against someone like Adkins, where we as the audience are meant to believe his character is a total badass. It didn’t help that for the last 90 minutes we had watched him getting his arse kicked at every opportunity, making you wonder why his character was even held in such high esteem in the first place.
Sesma’s latest, action thriller Lights Out rectifies this, with the leading role being filled by a bonafide action star in the shape of Frank Grillo. Grillo’s presence alone should be enough to raise Lights Out above Section Eight, especially when it couples him with Scott Adkins, but regrettably Sesma’s latest never truly comes alive as it should.
Although Section Eight didn’t exactly have the most interesting plot, there was enough going on to keep things interesting. Lights Out’s plot is much smaller in scale, mostly focusing on the world of bare knuckle fighting.
The film revolves around drifter Michael “Duffy” Duffield (Frank Grillo), traveling from town to town to make ends meet. After getting in a bar fight during a poker game, he is brought to the attention of ex-con Max (Mekhi Phifer). After a bit of persuasion, Max is able to talk Michael into taking part in an underground fight. Michael quickly builds up a reputation, with him and Max making a ton of money.
With Michael’s reputation growing, he finds himself in L.A. taking part in a fight organized by local crime boss Sage Parker (Dermot Mulroney). Like his previous fights, Michael quickly wins, but that brings about some unwelcome attention from corrupt cop Ridgeway (Jaime King) who is secretly working with Parker. Michael’s reputation continues to build, but so does the danger that surrounds him and those he is closest to.
Now, many action classics have had similar focus. One just has to look at the classic Lionheart a.k.a. AWOL (1990) to see how to successfully pull off a film about underground fighting. Sadly Lights Out doesn’t come close to Van Damme’s legendary actioner.
That isn’t to say the film doesn’t have its enjoyable parts, but they’re not enough to make it a total success. Admittedly, Sesma kicks things off with a bang, with a bullet strewn opening in the Middle East introducing us to both Frank Grillo’s Michael and Scott Adkins’ Don. From this opening you would be forgiven in thinking that Lights Out is going to be a Scott Adkins vehicle, with the camera following him for the majority of the action, only briefly cutting to Grillo as he tends to the wounds of a fallen soldier.
During this set piece Adkins gets to unleash some devastating moves, taking down several enemy combatants. It’s an exciting opening that the remainder of the film is unfortunately unable to match. Sure, there are some decent fight scenes throughout, but nothing really gets the adrenaline pumping, with Lights Out having something of a pace issue. Even as the film reaches towards its climax and events escalate, the ensuing action is frustratingly short and small scale.
Sesma does include a nice X ray effect during some of the fight scenes which was evocative of action legend Sonny Chiba’s The Streetfighter (1974). This has both a positive and detrimental effect on the film. Although it is an interesting visual flourish that adds to the action, it also makes you reminiscent of The Streetfigher, a film that completely overshadows Lights Out in terms of quality.
The filmmakers have assembled a quality cast that does somewhat help raise Lights Out, although some cast members are poorly utilized in smaller roles. Frank Grillo is always a welcome presence, no matter if he is the lead or in support. Here, he is front and center, with him shedding his tough guy exterior every now and again to reveal his character’s emotional side. His role gives him enough of an opportunity to show off his physicality, with Grillo being in incredible shape. He throws himself into his fight scenes, even if they don’t call for him to pull off any elaborate moves.
Grillo shares decent chemistry with co-star Mekhi Phifer, with the relationship between the two of them being similar to the connection Van Damme builds with Harrison Page in the previously mentioned Lionheart. Through Phifer’s Max, Grillo’s character is given a reason to fight and care again. It was good to see Phifer in quite a substantial role, and although this isn’t his best work he makes Max likeable.
Anyone tuning in for Scott Adkins will be sorely disappointed, as his role is essentially an extended cameo. While he is featured prominently during the opening set piece, we don’t see him again until near the finale, where Grillo’s Michael contacts him for help. Adkins gets to show off a little bit of his martial arts skills during the final action scene, but it’s disappointingly short lived. Just as you feel he’s getting warmed up, the action comes to an end.
Dermot Mulroney is on bad guy duties, but he doesn’t get a great deal to do. He mostly plays second fiddle to Jaime King’s corrupt cop Ridgeway which I personally think did the film more harm than good. No offense to King but she was totally unconvincing as the film’s main villain, with it being unbelievable that a supposed tough guy like Mulroney would be scared off by someone that looks like a gust of wind would topple them over.
If they wanted a tough female as the villain, they would have been better giving the role to co-star JuJu Chan, rather than completely wasting her in a nothing role as Mulroney’s girlfriend. Anyone aware of the fighting skills she showed off in the likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016) and Wu Assassins (2019) will be wondering why she wasn’t given more of an opportunity to show them off here, with Chan only being afforded one relatively short fight scene.
Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone fairs a little better, with him at least getting to square off against Grillo in one of the film’s better fight scenes. Other than this, Cerrone doesn’t get much more to do. He and Grillo have an antagonistic relationship, so much so I expected they would end up facing off again later in the film, but this wasn’t to be. I was especially disheartened as Cerrone had impressed me not too long back with his performance in 3 Days in Malay (2023).
Sesma regular Paul Sloan has a small role as King’s fellow corrupt cop. Although Sloan gets involved in the action during the finale, I expected him to have a more physical role, with him either facing off against Grillo or Adkins. Sloan is still fun with the screen time he has, with him being at least believable when carrying out his villainous duties.
I noted Luke LaFontaine’s name in the credits as stunt coordinator. Considering LaFontaine has worked on some of the best films to come out of the DTV arena, with the likes of the Debt Collector (2018) and Avengement (2019) featuring on his filmography, I expected the action to be more impressive. As mentioned, there are several fight scenes that are competently done, but there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before. It is only when Adkins appears that the choreography seems to become more elaborate.
I had hoped to enjoy Lights Out more than I did. Sesma continues to show promise as a director, and I feel that with the right material and budget he is capable of delivering an action classic. Lights Out seems like a step back for him, but with a number of films already in post production, Sesma will hopefully be able to bounce back.
Plot: 2/5 Acting: 2/5 Action: 2.5/5 Overall: 2.1/5