This could be The Bodyguard for a new generation. Instead of former Secret Service, he is a retired MMA fighter and she is a transgender entertainer. However, most of the time, she isn’t in much jeopardy, but she socializes with Udo Kier, so maybe that ought to qualify as dangerous. Despite their differences, they just might fall for each other in screenwriter-director-star Nick Sasso’s Haymaker, which is now playing in theaters and on VOD.
As luck would have it, Nicky “Mitts” Malloy was bouncing at the club that booked one-named Nomi when she was attacked by a thuggish customer. He was fired for his gallantry, so she hires him as her personal bodyguard. Soon, he is jet-setting around the world with her (Nomi’s agent books a bizarre range of gigs, from Bronx dive bars to Latin American stadium tours.). Much to the surprise of both, they actually seem to enjoy each other’s company, but he is still a bit too tightly wound and she still parties a bit too hard. When they inevitably part ways, he hops a flight to Thailand, to jump-start his training in the cradle of Muay Thai.
There is a lot of oddly pleasant stuff in Haymaker, like its depiction of the expat MMA scene in Thailand. It also boasts two significant genre cameos from Kier and Zoe Bell, who plays Malloy’s former American trainer. Most importantly, the chemistry between Sasso’s Malloy and Nomi Ruiz as her namesake is quite appealing, in an unforced, easy-going kind of way. They really are an attractive couple, but as mean as it sounds, they probably needed more adversity to overcome.
Aside from the early assault, there really isn’t much peril for Nomi. Likewise, Malloy’s opponent for his comeback bout is his friend, Brett “The Threat,” who conducts himself in a worthy and honorable fashion. Arguably, this is a refreshing subversion of fight movie cliches and a truer-to-life portrayal of Muay Thai discipline, but it doesn’t help build the film towards a grand emotional climax.
Haymaker demonstrates the cinematic dangers of excessive likability. Sasso and Nomi Ruiz are very nice together, while D.B. Sweeney is likably schlubby as Malloy’s shaggy dog brother, Mack. At least Bell adds a little bit of attitude. Frankly, the film is totally slick looking, so you have to give Sasso credit for a pretty assured directorial debut. Unfortunately, his script is too laidback and low-impact.
Haymaker is hard film to review, because it doesn’t really have enough to recommend it, but I would be happy to check out Sasso’s next film, based on this one. You have to start somewhere and there are thousands of worse debuts. If you really dig the world of journeyman Joe Palooka Muay Thai-MMA fighters than maybe consider dialing it up, but most viewers can safely pass on Haymaker, which is now available on Apple TV and in select theaters.