We’ve already had faith-based dramas involving baseball (“Where Hope Grows”), football (“Woodlawn,” “Facing the Giants”), boxing (“Carman: The Champion”) and even competitive skateboarding (“Hardflip”), so it probably was only a matter of time before someone offered us a mashup of Bible-thumping and butt-whipping like “The Fight Within,” a dutifully sincere but ponderously predictable drama about a young mixed martial arts fighter who returns to the cage after a self-imposed sabbatical because somebody up there likes him. Actually, the guy has other good reasons for brawling again after being born again — he needs to help his brother pay the bills at their family gym and wants to smite a nasty opponent who has threatened his sweetheart. But the film is filled with so many admonitions to follow God’s heed, and play your role in His grand plan, that there’s never any real doubt here about what the main event is, and what’s on the undercard.
Early flashbacks reveal how Logan Chandler (John Major Davis), the protagonist of the piece, was only one fight away from turning pro as an MMA contender before he rebelled against the training regimen imposed by his demanding father. Unfortunately, right after he literally pushed back against dad, the older gentleman suffered a fatal heart attack. After that, Logan quit fighting, opting to serve only as a trainer at the gym bequeathed to him and his brother Mason (Mike Taylor).
Even when promoters offer him a sizable payday and other enticements to sign on for a return match with Hayden Dressler (Matt Leddo), a rising MMA star who wants revenge after losing to Logan in an amateur bout years earlier, he refuses to rumble. And his commitment to nonviolence is strengthened when he falls for Emma Jones (Lelia Symington), a lovely young Christian who wants to spend a lot of quality time with Logan before she begins a stretch of missionary work with orphans in Africa. (No, really.) She applauds his efforts to avoid physical confrontations, and introduces him to the joys of being a true-believing churchgoer.
Trouble is, Hayden is a cocky brute who won’t take no for an answer. He vandalizes Logan’s car and invades Emma’s apartment, in the hope of making the reluctant fighter angry enough to return to his MMA roots. One thing leads to another, and Logan eventually is inspired to embrace the idea that “warrior of God” isn’t just a figure of speech.
Scene after scene (or, if you prefer, round after round) of “The Fight Within” is clunky and didactic, and the movie as a whole has appreciably less mainstream appeal than several other recent, and much better, faith-based dramas. It doesn’t help much that some on-the-nose dialogue sounds like it belongs in a parody of faith-based entertainment. (“My dad might not be in my corner — but my God is!”) And it doesn’t help at all that director Michael William Gordon and scriptwriter Jim Davis felt the need to include in their narrative a sage homeless man (Wesley Williams) who comes off as equal parts Yoda, Jiminy Cricket and guardian angel, while offering spiritual guidance to an initially skeptical, then fully receptive Logan.
Still, there is something ineffably impactful about almost any movie that features an offspring who feels responsible for his or her parent’s death, and “The Fight Within” manages to score points for being at least mildly affecting by sensitively handling that aspect of its storyline. Also in its favor: Relatively subdued supporting performances — to his credit, Leddo never lets his lip-curling sneers as Hayden get out of hand — and there’s appealing chemistry generated between romantic leads Davis and Symington.
Of course, the romance of their characters is impeccably chaste. At one point, Emma invites Logan into her apartment by promising: “I know a way to make you feel better.” And she makes good on that promise — by offering him chocolate chip cookies. Logan, it should be noted, doesn’t look the least bit disappointed.