Unchained is a low-budget girl-fight film directed by Raphaello (Rogue Planet Gamma, Bloodbath – The Motion Picture) and should be considered and contemplated within the parameters of its production. It’s a female-empowerment thriller about Aella (Mair Mulroney), an unemployed woman in Los Angeles kidnapped by a mysterious and abusive organization that steals women off the street and turns them into underground prizefighters. Aella is tortured by Warden Georgia (Larry L. Andrews), who runs this “human zoo” and takes what he wants from the women — although not Aella, who is protected by the mysterious man behind the curtain. Our hero learns to fight as she and her friends plan their escape from the tyrannical organization. All the while, her dreams of Eric Roberts as “the Father” help her survive, doling out platitudes about survival and power.
To those who are familiar with straight-to-VOD entertainment, Eric Roberts showing up to film for a single day and scant minutes of screen time is a sign of quality. To some, it’s a negative. To this reviewer, well, I didn’t write an extended, positive review of A Talking Cat?! for nothing.
What I mean by the parameters of production with regard to Unchained is that there’s no universe in which a budget this small doesn’t result in occasionally faulty sound design, imaginative use of limited sets and amateur acting performances that leave a little to be desired. It’s just a given.
What Unchained succeeds at being, despite those clear problems, is an engaging mystery-thriller with surprisingly well-shot fight sequences and a decent empowerment message (albeit with a somewhat cringe-worthy song choice over the credits to sum them up). Mulroney is great in a role that asks her to convey Aella’s development from an innocent everywoman into someone willing to take lives to survive. There are some weird plot twists at the end that detract from the more straightforward nature of the fight-world stuff, but she’s consistently interesting to watch and therefore makes those plot bits palatable.
Unchained can be hard to watch, though. Georgia, as mentioned, is a sadistic monster. The film pulls no punches with gore, violence and his physical treatment of the women; sexual violence, however, is heavily hinted at but not shown — a good choice. He obviously gets his comeuppance, but it comes with a cost. This is a brutal fight film, with Aella being pushed away from her comfort zone to become something else.
It’s not a unique story, but it’s a well-done and engaging one. By coincidence, its release comes a week before Marvel Studios’ Black Widow, a film I quite enjoyed that also doesn’t shy away from its depictions of men violently exploiting women for their own sadistic aims, promising to “make them more than they are.” Widow is Marvel Studios’ darkest film, in part because it hints at a world that Unchained explicitly depicts, albeit in a low-budget way. At 80 minutes, Unchained overcomes its production limitations to work as a disturbing, intense action thriller.