The burgeoning popularity of MMA has spilled over into the world of martial arts action movies. The results have been, no pun intended, a mixed bag – for every instant classic the sub genre has produced (“Flash Point”, “Undisputed II: Last Man Standing”, “Undisputed III: Redemption”) there seems to be at least one mediocre to truly awful film to offset it (“Never Surrender”, “Unrivaled”, “Redbelt”.)
In 2008, the world saw MMA mixed with run of the mill teen drama in the film “Never Back Down”. Neither the best nor the worst MMA film to be produced, it was serviceable, passable, but basically so-so, and certainly not the type of film that would make one think that a sequel was on the way, even a straight-to-DVD sequel omitting the majority of its predecessor’s cast. But, like the “Undisputed” sequels, “Never Back Down 2: The Beatdown” leapfrogs the so-so quality of its previous incarnation and establishes itself as a solid martial arts action drama, one of the best MMA films ever produced, as well as the rare straight-to-DVD sequel to blow the original film out of the water, pretty much in every way.
Along with making his directorial debut with the film, Michael Jai White leads the pack in “The Beatdown” as Case Walker, an ex-convict and former rising star in the MMA world. White brings his usual calm and cool demeanour to the role, while consistently wowing the viewer with kicking styles that defy what a man his size should be able to execute. He is joined in the film by real life MMA fighters Scott Epstein, in the role of unhinged rookie fighter Justin, and Todd Duffee as Tim, the first student Case takes on in the film.
“Twilight” alumni Alex Meraz gets the chance to display his real-life Capoeira skills as Zack, an experienced boxer struggling to work past an eye injury, while Dean Geyer enters the role of seasoned wrestler Mike, and his efforts to penetrate a loose-leaf sheet of paper with his knuckles under Case’s instruction becomes central to his character arc. Evan Peters, the lone returning cast member of the first film, re-enters his role of MMA-fanatic Max, and he’s right at home infusing both his fellow characters and the film with the energy and enthusiasm both need.
Taking place a few years after the first film left off, the story involves four college freshmen with their own battles to fight. Zack Gomes has had a prosperous career in amateur boxing, but in a “Rocky”-esque misfortune, learns that he’s suffered a detached retina from his most recent fight. Up and coming fighter Tim Newhouse is struggling to balance his college life with being his family’s primary wage earner as their home remains on the verge of foreclosure. High school wrestling champion Mike Stokes finds himself the subject of constant ridicule even in his new college setting over his estranged father’s extramarital affair with another man.
Comic book store clerk Justin Epstein finds himself greeted by a group of local hoodlums at the end of every working day. Recognizing their passion for fighting, MMA evangelist Max Cooperman recruits Zack and Mike into “The Beatdown”, an MMA tournament previously seen in the original film for which he has since become emcee (in a nice nod to its predecessor, Max’s online streaming preview of the tournament features footage of the original film’s climactic parking lot brawl between Sean Faris and Cam Gigandet).
Max directs Zack and Sean to seek instruction from former MMA rising star Case Walker. Case has already been training Tim for several months, and he’s recently taken Justin under his wing as well. Though initially hostile to his new recruits, Case and his students grow closer after a group of racist cops exploit Case’s criminal record as an excuse to boot him out of the vacant lot they train in, which his four students rectify by converting an abandoned warehouse into their own dojo.
As the group continues to bond and the Beatdown nears, Justin’s skills have grown to the point where he can finally defend himself from the sadistic thugs who attacked him previously. However, his retaliation goes far beyond the parameters of legitimate self-defense, and he leaves his attackers bloodied and barely alive. Furious at Justin’s actions and their possible ramifications on his parole, Case excommunicates Justin from the group.
The incensed Justin snaps and retaliates by framing Case for firearms possession, a violation of his parole, with the racist cops who booted Case out of the vacant lot previously all too eager for the excuse to arrest him. Max manages to film the cops’ attempt in beating up Case while Case fights them off before the two escape. With the police only finding Justin’s fingerprints on the gun in Case’s trailer, it’s clear to the group that Justin set Case up, and they form a pact to avenge Case against Justin at the Beatdown, which is being held in their own new gym.
As the Beatdown progresses, it eventually comes down to Mike versus Zack in the cage…. Meanwhile, Justin attacks Tim with a nightstick in the bathroom during the fight, breaking his leg and eliminating him from the tournament, leaving Mike to face Justin in the final fight.
One thing that’s indisputable – the film’s martial arts content trumps that of the first film. You could attribute this entirely to the martial arts credentials of White and the rest of the cast, but that would overlook the services of fight choreographer Larnell Stovall, whose previous credits as choreographer include “Undisputed III: Redemption”, “Mortal Kombat: Rebirth”, and both seasons of “Mortal Kombat: Legacy”. He and the cast have assembled a true feast of cinematic combat. The martial arts styles on display in the film are varied and plentiful, although Karate and Jujitsu get the most prominent exposure.
The entire cast, more or less, throws themselves head first into the action, and Meraz’s real life Capoeira skills are particularly impressive. The film even manages to work in a cameo for real-life MMA fighter and Shotokan exponent Lyoto Machida as a former training partner of Case’s. It’s also worth noting that the film’s training scenes significantly surpass those of the first film, in that they advance the story. Focus and serenity are two of the most championed qualities in martial arts, and Mike being instructing to punch a piece of paper hanging from the ceiling and penetrate it with his knuckles goes beyond focusing the power of his strikes and extends towards calming his anger.
Michael Jai White has assembled a film that tops the original. It is better acted and less clichéd than the original, and the film’s martial arts content, staged and choreographed by Larnell Stovall of “Undisputed III” and “Mortal Kombat: Legacy” fame, goes heads and tails over its predecessor. Like the “Undisputed” sequels, it takes a theatrical film that inspired a blasé response from audiences, and defies its straight- pumped for “Never Back Down 3”; maybe that one will pull a “Next Karate Kid” and rope a girl into the Beatdown!
And on a side note, if “The Beatdown” is any indication, Michael Jai White certainly has an ear for one awesome soundtrack!
- The film held its world premiere during the second annual “Action Fest”, the world’s first film festival devoted to action films, on 8th April 2011.
- Scott Epstein and Todd Duffee, both real-life professional MMA fighters, each made their film debuts here.
- “Never Back Down 2” was produced on a shorter time frame and with a significantly lower budget than the original. The film’s fight choreographer, Larnell Stovall revealed, via his Twitter page, that the original “Never Back Down” was produced on a budget of $20 million and filmed over a seven-week schedule, with five weeks devoted to rehearsals. By contrast, “Never Back Down 2” was filmed over the course of four weeks, with two weeks given to rehearsals, and was made for just $3 million.
Film Rating: 8/10
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