ActionFest '11: NEVER BACK DOWN II (Rough Cut) Review
The tricky proposition of reviewing a rough-cut of a film is that it probably still has several passes through the editing suite, but since they screened Michael Jai White's directorial debut in front of many a Mixed Martial Arts enthusiast here at ActionFest, with the man in the Spawn suit (or Black Dynamite! if you prefer) in attendance, I'll do my best to be kind but firm to a film that needs a lot of trimming to get to the heart of things. The cut we saw must have been two hours or more, with plenty of ill-formed side-plots and attempts to flesh out character, when tightening things down to a more spare 85-90 minutes would likely be advisable. But, onward.
Cast predominantly with MMA fighters, Never Back Down II, has a story involving four guys from different background brought together under the tutelage of a retired (but still in his prime) sensei Case to battle for $10K and glory in an underground college MMA tourney, The Beatdown, ran by a hyper Zuckerberg-esque college kid replete with twitches and hyperbola (strengths in a fight promotor, and in this film the only other actor who can hold their own beyond the charismatic, above all this, Jai White). It is a tale of male-bonding and school-yard posturing and cheap, meaningless over-stylized sex that pops up on occasion. Epstein (Scottie Epstein), often a dead ringer with his moppy-goth hair for The Warrior's David Patrick Kelley, is the local comic book geek hassled by local goons who learns to fight - but goes perhaps a bit too far in his revenge quest. Zack (Alex Meraz from Twilight, not UFC, but that does not help the acting much) is a boxer with a torn retina, but still has the desire to fight (and dance and fuck.) There is hot-headed wrestler Mike who is dealing with his dad leaving him and his mother for another man. As if there isn't enough homoeroticism of sweaty men showering together and grabbling on vinyl or rubber. Lastly, there is Tim (Todd Duffee), who looks like a young Dolph Lundgren, but here is a gentle giant, and loyal right-hand-man to Case. He cooks breakfast and turns off bootie-videos for his younger siblings while his mom tries to make the mortgage payments as a waitress in a strip club. And he is trying to study for college exams, but that is quickly dropped anyway, and it is all a big stretch that asks for too much of the audience patience for this type of film. A variety of cameos from MMA luminaries show up hither and yon to legitimize the film as almost an official advertisement of the brand.
I think the mistake here is trying to have these guys act in drama, when clearly in the various training montages and big end tourney, almost all the drama and conflict is well realized on screen in the MMA fighting. Trim all the fat away, keep any scenes with White himself on screen (particularly a delightful solo smack down of the entire local police force.) The softcore sex is titillating in a Skin-e-max sort of way but completely redundant to the story (as is a love triangle that goes nowhere), ditto the home lives of all these characters. They are clay-men being hardened in the octagon, it is probably best to keep it that way. The film saves much of its goods for the end tourney where the plot and 'drama' resolves itself, Kumite style, with the fine work of fight choreographer Larnell Stovall. MMA fighting on the big screen is still in in the early stages of finding its style and rhythm, especially when you consider the long cinematic history of boxing, but things are handsome here and worth the slog of character motivation and setbacks to get there. There is a serviceable movie in here desperately trying to punch its way out of its own body fat.
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