Never Back Down
Starz via On Demand
I was expecting to flip on Never Back Down, a formula sports movie designed to catch a hold of the rising mixed martial arts bandwagon, until I fell asleep. I stayed awake for the whole thing! I even watched the credits, to figure out what was the deal with the Lee Ranaldo vocals on one song in the film's otherwise execrable soundtrack. (The Sonic Youth guitarist was a guest on a track by the UK's Cribs.) The movie works for what it is by casting actors as opposed to athletes and not letting any obligatory scene (The Ice Breaking with the Love Interest, Tension Mounting with Your Parent(s), Tension Mounting with Your Mentor, Vaguely Homoerotic Training Montage with Your Floppy Sidekick) run any longer than a few moments.
Director Jeff Wadlow employs lots of handheld shots and the most up-to-date digital editing technology to make an inexpensively made picture look flashy and exciting. He also gets better-than-genre support cast, like Lelie Hope from "24" as the mom and Djimon Hounsou from Gladiator as the trainer. There's even a sort of sly point being made by the filmmakers in the way that this quickie cash-in movie builds so much of its plot on get-famous-quick modern technology: everybody has iPhones and is watching fights replayed on YouTube seconds later.
Amber Heard, who also played Seth Rogen's cursory love interest in Pineapple Express, is quite terrible as the babe, but the rest of the kids are pretty good. Sean Faris is an amiable lead, Evan Peters is lovable as the sidekick, and the sculpted Cam Gigandet nearly steals the picture in the Val Kilmer golden boy baddie role. I also like the inclusion of a younger brother character (Wyatt Smith) who's a preteen tennis prodigy. The idea that the same competitive spirit runs through the gentlemen's game and the bare-knuckle brawls is obvious but effective, and it gives the film a precipitating event (the kid brother gets an academy scholarship, causing the family to move) that's both modern and surprisingly nuanced for a Karate Kid remake.
The somewhat stylized dialogue isn't believable, but it's the right choice for the material. Better you suspect the writing is a little too smart for the characters than be bored by how stupid they both are. The habit of random spectators to conveniently yell out the names of the various wrestling holds as they happen is stupid, but maybe necessary to solidify the tie-in to the UFC brand. I've only ever watched a handful of MMA bouts but I doubt highly that any serious coach would ever tell his charges, "You've got to mix it up. It's mixed martial arts!"
This is the first movie I ever remember seeing that openly identified itself as being set in Orlando. That's a weird first.