Saturday, September 17, 2011

Movie Review: Never Back Down 2

Four college age kids from different walks of life enter an underground mixed martial arts tournament known as “The Beatdown.”  In order to prepare themselves, they train under a mysterious loner known as Case.  The wisdom he imparts on his pupils proves useful both inside and outside the octagon.  On the eve of the event, an altercation with some crooked cops puts his freedom in jeopardy.   His students rush to his aid, and prepare to root out the traitor that hides within their ranks.  

Never Back Down 2 is the direct to DVD sequel to 2008’s Never Back Down.  The original was a glossy, mean spirited Karate Kid rip-off masquerading as a meaningful coming of age story.  Michael Jai White not only plays the mentor character this time out, but sits in the director’s chair as well.  The film essentially follows the same tournament scenario as its predecessor, but with a few notable changes.  Similar to Warrior, it offers multiple protagonists instead of just one.   Despite the changes, Never Back Down 2 is only a marginally better film than the original.

Visually the film is competent, though not terribly distinct.  The visual palette suitably expands during the films more active stretches, only to contract during its more mundane moments. Cinematographer Lukas Ettlin allows the camera to float freely in certain environments and situations.  During a frat party, he zeroes in various forms of debauchery in what feels like a modern variation of “bullet-time.”   The camera circles around the protagonists during the requisite training montages, allowing an all-encompassing view of the techniques being practiced.  

The fight choreography by Larnell Stovall is both functional and technically precise.  The fighters transition smoothly from stand up-fighting to ground techniques.  Elements of capoeira, boxing, and traditional wrestling are integrated into a cohesive whole.  The mostly conservative visual approach is something of double edged sword.  It renders the fights clear and understandable, but it also robs them of immediacy.   None of the set pieces really stand out except for one where a handcuffed Michael Jai White fends off multiple attackers.  On the positive side, the training montages treat viewers to some rather unorthodox drills and strength training techniques.  This adds a bit of much needed variety to the sometimes mundane setting.

In true B-Movie fashion, the script is a bit too obvious in how fleshes it’s characters out.  It throws the viewer a left hook by turning one of the protagonists into a villain during the third act.  Case’s training apparently unleashes his inner bully.  It’s an interesting concept, but the film delivers it in a half-baked manner.  Instead of happening gradually and organically, the transition feels sudden and forced.  The reaction of the other characters also feels a bit muted considering the seriousness of the transgressions that take place.  

The principle cast of Never Back Down 2 proves to be its weakest element.  The performances range from passable to noticeably bad.  This undermines the suspension of disbelief considerably.  Alex Meraz and Dean Geyer, whose characters spend a good deal of the running time at odds, are nigh indistinguishable at certain points.  They seem to be playing two different versions of the exact same character.  Todd Deffee’s superhero physique is constantly at odds with his oafish demeanor.   Michael Jai White proves to be the film’s saving grace in this regard.  As always, he exudes confidence and amazing physicality as Case. He even exhibits the ability to poke sly fun at his stoic action hero image.   

With Never Back Down 2, Michael Jai White proves himself a competent director.  He also reaffirms his place as one of America’s most underutilized action stars.  Perhaps if he had been provided with a better script and a more capable group of actors, Never Back Down 2 might have been in the same pantheon as the superb Blood and Bone.  Good fight choreography and solid, capable direction can only go so far in compensating for other noticeable deficiencies.  The actors have to be able to convincingly sell the material for the audience to fully buy into it.  Without that, the films other virtues run the risk of going unnoticed.      

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