There’s an interesting trait that the “Never Back Down” series has in common with the “Undisputed” franchise – they each begin with a first chapter that has its moments, but they really start to get good with the second installment, and curiously enough, this is the exact point where Michael Jai White jumps in, in both cases. In other news, “Never Back Down: No Surrender” is also pretty awesome!
In addition to returning to the director’s chair for a second time, Michael Jai White reprises his role from “Never Back Down 2” of MMA fighter Case Walker, and just like last time, the supporting cast includes at least one real-life MMA champ. This time it’s former UFC Heavyweight champion Josh Barnett as Case’s good friend, Brody James, while renown fighting commentator and noted Kevin Bacon-lookalike Stephen “The Fight Professor” Quadros portrays gym owner Matty Ramos.
Esai Morales steps into the villainous role of slimy fight promoter Hugo Vega, with his publicist Myca Cruz played by White’s real-life wife Gillian Iliana White and Vega’s current champion Caesar Braga portrayed by Australia’s biggest wall of muscle favourite, Nathan Jones. With the film being set in Thailand, some of the local talent also make their way into the film, specifically Jeeja Yanin as a female fighter in Ramos’ gym, and Tony Jaa making a cameo as…Tony Jaa!
After “Never Back Down 2”, Case Walker makes a return to the world of professional MMA, though his proclivity to lend advice to his opponents at the end of each fight irks his manager and the promoters too much for him to make it to the top. However, his good friend and fellow MMA fighter Brody James has a match coming up in Thailand under the controversial PFC league. Though Case disapproves of the league’s ridiculously lax (and arguably non-existent) policy on testing its fighters for performance enhancing drugs, he agrees to accompany Brody to Thailand to help him train for his upcoming bout against the notoriously vicious Caesar Braga.
In his portrayal of Case Walker, Michael Jai White may very well have created a character who is truly one of a kind in martial arts films -it’s exceedingly rare to see a mentor character who is this much of an active participant in the main action of the film.
Sure, we’ve seen the wise teacher who will get his hands dirty when the time calls for it as per your Mr. Miyagi’s or your Xian Chow’s then you’ll have mentors in the vein of Master Shifu or Beggar So – their function to the story, first and foremost is in passing on their knowledge and wisdom to an eager disciple. That’s just not the kind of dojo Case Walker is running, though.
The opening scene of the film sees him achieving victory in his latest fight and then taking his opponent aside to advise him to add some more finesse to his punches while commending his kicking ability (and given that the opponent is martial arts/stuntman veteran Ron Smoorenburg, it’s hard to disagree with that assessment!). Case is the rare martial arts movie character who spends as much time teaching as he does fighting and it’s not unusual to see him doing both at once.
One of the best scenes in the film has an arrogant fighter in Ramos’ gym who (in addition to insulting him with some borderline racist remarks) scoffs at Case’s practice of traditional karate kata, only to have the tables completely turned on him after inviting Case in the cage for a sparring match. The choreography of the scene from the always reliable Larnell Stovall, first presents a black-and-white image of Case executing the movements of one section of his kata, followed by him applying the exact sequence of techniques against his opponent. A fight sequence that brings the audience into the mind of the combatants is always going to hit the bull’s eye, but it’s not often one does so this literally!
Jeeja Yanin’s somewhat background character has a similar smackdown in the film when she steps into the ring against martial arts-stunt pro BrahimAchabbakhe. A word to the wise – never step into a ring in Thailand if you’re not interested in eating this many elbows, although none of them are delivered by Tony Jaa. His role is very much a cameo playing himself, though it admittedly serves as a punchline on Quinton “Rampage” Jackson’s appearance in the film in the exact same capacity.
The film tends to come full circle on just about everything, in this way. In fact, “No Surrender” may already take the crown for the most cerebral MMA flick you’ll see this year. It’s an understatement to say that Case is a man who thinks ahead and plans for every battle well in advance. You’ll be letting out an audible “Ahhhh!” when you see how he manages to circumvent Brody’s steroid usage and the last third of the film is like seeing a chess game unfold onscreen.
Caesar Braga may have the mind of a Neanderthal (90% of his vocabulary seems to consist of “Murder!” “Death!” “Kill!”), but Case also knows better than to underestimate him and this gives way to what is undoubtedly one of the most satisfying endings you’ll see in a very long time! Without going into spoilers, Case sets out to take Caesar out and bring Hugo Vega’s entire corrupt fighting organization crumblingdown. He employs a strategy that involves a little button pushing in addition to trading blows with the champ himself, basically it’s impossible not to find yourself grinning from ear-to-ear when all is said and done!
MMA is done a welcome and tremendous justice in “Never Back Down: No Surrender”. It’s not often you get a character like Case Walker who’s both mentor and warrior at once and the film takes all of that potential to great lengths. With two directorial credits now to his name, Michael Jai White has become one of the foremost martial arts filmmakers in the business today. Now let’s see what you’ve got, “Undisputed IV”!
- Nathan Jones previously appeared alongside Tony Jaa in “Tom Yum Goong” aka “The Protector”.
- Ron Smoorenburg previously appeared alongside Michael Jai White in “The Asian Connection”.
- In a recent Q & A, Michael Jai White explained that when the role of the film’s female lead, Myca Cruz, was being auditioned, the executives at Sony Pictures singled out Gillian White’s as the best, not knowing that she and White were married. Subsequently, they learned that this made them the first ever black husband and wife to appear as a romantic couple in the same movie – which they will do for a second time later this year in the upcoming “Cops and Robbers”!