A sort of teenage Fight Club, complete with daddy issues, Never Back Down is a slight refinement of the sort of picture that was ascendant in the '80s (think The Karate Kid). And though it's cheesy, it'll almost work for audiences who go in knowing not to expect a single surprise. That humble victory testifies to the competence of director Jeff Wadlow and the charisma of the two leads, Sean Faris and two-time Oscar nomineee Djimon Hounsou.
Faris plays Jake Tyler, an angry teen who—not long after his father's tragic death—moves with his mother (Leslie Hope of 24) and younger brother (Wyatt Henry Smith) from Iowa to Orlando. There, he discovers he could be the next big thing if he agrees to take up mixed martial arts and misuse them in underground "Beatdowns." Factors in his decision-making include the beautiful Baja (Amber Heard), her BMOC boyfriend Ryan (Cam Gigandet), MMA master Jean Roqua (Hounsou), and that unresolved anger.
Screenwriter Chris Hauty and Wadlow do their best with a story that they know as well as we do is bound to formula. In Hounsou's hands, Roqua is a magnetic and impressive mentor, and Hauty pays a bit more than lip service to the idea that MMA should be viewed for self-improvement and in a generous spirit of competition rather than an agressive one (Roqua: "People who come here for the wrong reasons never last"). The filmmakers nod to the story's traditional heroic structure: a stadium banner announces "WELCOME TO THE WOODS!" on Jake's first day of school, his English teacher teaches a spot-on class about The Iliad and its ambivalence toward the glory and tragedy of violence, and the climax twice includes the expression "Jake Tyler...back from the dead."
The film's greater impression is its unavoidable conventionality, complete with asshole villain and training montage featuring the ol' three-yolk cocktail. Of course, a proven formula can still satisfy, and Never Back Down functions on that guilty pleasure level. To Hauty's credit, the inevitable final fight is delayed first by Jake taking the higher road and then by a debate with Roqua. Jake's stance rests on the shaky logic that a fight with Ryan will end his reign of tyranny once and for all (if Jake were to lose graciously, Ryan would still lord over the school, and if Jake were to win, wouldn't he be hounded for a rematch?). The picture works itself into moral knots to justify where it must go for commercial reasons, and let's face it: would we have it any other way?
Summit Entertainment proudly gives one of their earliest releases a definitive Blu-Ray and DVD release in its "Extended Beat Down Edition." The image quality accurately represents the visual scheme seen in theatres, with grain present but unobtrusive. The detailed, unblemished image is complemented by a DTS 5.1 Master Audio Track specially beefed up for this slightly extended cut of the film. As director Jeff Wadlow explains and implies in a video Intro (:22), this unrated cut reinstates some impact shots and sounds too disturbing for the MPAA (shades of Fight Club!)
First among the extras is an Audio Commentary by Wadlow, Actor Sean Faris, and Writer Chris Hauty. This friendly team covers the script development and thinking behind the story, production challenges (such as shooting in 135° heat and injuries including Faris' broken back!), and the various contributions of the cast and crew.
The interactive feature Blow By Blow: Breaking Down the Fights (1:04:39 with "Play All" option) is accessible through a pop-up fist icon during playback, or as individual segments found in the Extras menu. It's an astonishingly thorough look at every fight sequence, with narration by Wadlow, Fight Choreographer Damon Caro, and Director of Photography Lucas Ettlin. They not only explain everything, but freeze, rewind, and instant-replay every notable moment of the scene, explaining how they were planned, rehearsed, performed, captured and edited for maximum effect. The scenes are "Gridiron Tyler" (5:20), "Backyard Brawl" (3:56), "The Main Event" (8:10), "Roqua's Day One" (4:53), "Half Speed" (2:57), "Road Rage" (4:14), "Mega Training Montage" (3:46), "The Beat Down" (16:36), and "Battle on the Blacktop" (14:44).
A similar feature is the Alternate Angle Fight Mode, in which a punching-bag icon signals the viewer to use the angle button to switch between the original cut, alternate cut #1, alternate cut #2, or a side-by-side comparison of all three views. All can be found through the Extras menu: "The Main Event," "Road Rage," "Checking In," "The Slam," "Kick to the Ribs," "Ryan Fouls Out," and "Battle on the Blacktop." "Mix It Up: Bringing MMA to the Big Screen" (10:15) is a must-see look at the actors' training regimen and growth in MMA techniques, featuring Wadlow, Faris, Gigandet, Hounsou, fight choreographers Jonathan Eusebro and Damon Caro, and producers David Zelon and Craig Baumgarten.
A nice collection of Deleted Scenes with introductions by director Jeff Wadlow (13:26 with "Play All" option) includes "That's Alright Mini-Jake" (:48), "Salt in the Wound" (1:13), "Just Wanted to Talk to You" (0:47), "Extended Famous Montage" (1:05), "One of Those Awful Days" (2:18), "A Little Stalker-ish" (1:21), "Justus Von Liebig" (1:08), "Ask Him Again" (:40), "Your Semi-Finalists" (1:07), "Extended McCarthy/Villa Fight" (1:15), and "They Don't Care Who Wins" (1:37). Last up is a Promo Reel (1:37) that offers an intriguing look at the film in its pitch stage, when it was still called "Get Some." Fans of Never Back Down can hardly complain about this lovingly crafted release.
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