Iceman vs. Maverick: Swordfight! Swordfight!
Never Back Down / Agent Bedhead
Film Reviews | March 20, 2008 | Comments ()
When I was a young girl entering kindergarten, my father instructed me that if a boy ever kissed me, I should “punch his lights out.” Not too far into the school year, a little cretin pinned me up against a wall during recess and laid one on me. Naturally, I decked him and ended up in the principal’s office, but I never saw my father look so proud. The unfortunate downside to this was that I couldn’t get a boy to look at me again until age 17, but if you’re wondering if I’ve told my daughter the same thing, you had better fucking believe it. So, in some cases, fighting does have legitimate purposes, but, in Never Back Down, fighting takes the form of entertainment for the so-called YouTube generation. This film centers around two guys, Jake (Sean Faris) and Ryan (Cam Gigandet), who evoke the lead roles from Top Gun by means of lengthy staredowns that signal their rivalry. While I’m not so sure that any reference to Tom Cruise is a good thing, Faris easily mirrors the cocky toothfulness of Maverick. In the other corner, Gigandet physically resembles the youthful Val Kilmer, but it’s too bad that he forgot about the whole acting thing. Aside from the obvious homoerotic tone conjured up by Maverick and Iceman, Never Back Down aims for the anti-coolness of Fight Club with a Karate Kid sort of storyline. However, there is no Tyler-Durdenesque critique on consumer culture and societal constructions of masculinity; similarly, no true Miyagian character steps in to demonstrate that martial arts isn’t all about fighting. Instead, director Jeff Wadlow (Cry Wolf), serves up a buff piece of marketing fluff and delivers it without an iota of irony.
Jake Tyler is a brooding young hottie who carries around a fair amount of anger concerning his father’s self-inflicted drunk driving death. Even though Jake doesn’t consider himself a fighter, it’s pretty damn easy to lure him into a bloody brawl. All that one needs to do is say, “Your dad was a drunk, man!” to provoke the desired Pavlovian response. At an Iowan football game, Jake beats the living hell out of an opposing team member who drops that fateful insult. Film footage of this video is, of course, posted on YouTube, and Jake becomes an overnight legend to high-schoolers everywhere. Then, Jake’s mother (Leslie Hope) decides to move to Orlando, Florida for reasons that only the screenwriter’s ass knows. As the new kid at his high school, Jake’s classmates all watch him with admiration. Since Jake is still grieving for his father, he never notices the attention, and he never really notices that the kids at school are beating the shit out of each other. The name of the kids’ sick game is MMA (Mixed Martial Arts), which combines judo, karate, wrestling, and sambo. These “beatdowns” are supposed to be part of an underground club, but they sure do seem to take place in awfully public venues. The school cafeteria, for instance, is fair game and apparently devoid of all authority figures, who apparently can’t hear a crowd shouting, “Fight!” Oddly enough, these extremely violent fights never result in the loss of teeth either.
Meanwhile, Jake’s knowledge of The Iliad impresses a blondie named Baja (Amber Heard), who just happens to be Ryan’s sort-of girlfriend. Baja invites Jake to a mansion house party, and he accepts toothily. However, Jake soon realizes that this party was meant to initiate him into the cool-kid MMA club. At this point, some porno music would have been ace, because although Jake appears to get the warmies around Baja, it’s clear that the true romance occurs between he and Ryan during their fight scenes. The camera lingers over these two shirtless, strapping lads, whose rippling and glistening muscles propel them until they are slippery with sweat. As Jake and Ryan each stare intently into the other’s eyes while circling each other, they could just as easily jump into a round of ultra-violent lovemaking as they could proceed to pummel each other into oblivion. Obviously, this fighting isn’t just about violence — it’s a type of sex — and, as dangerous as these fights are, they are likely safer than actual sex these days. These smackdowns are accompanied by an eardrum-shattering pounding of bodies together at regular intervals — sort of like the sound a headboard makes. However, when one considers that Jake unwittingly ended up at this party where Ryan provokes him into his first “beatdown,” this sex seems a lot like rape. It certainly looks like the aftereffects of a violent crime when Jake finds himself as a bloody mess on the ground. So, he enrolls in classes at the Combat Club, which is run by an MMA master named Jean Roqua (Djimon Hounsou). Naturally, this is a great opportunity for the director to insert a shitload of training montages and some annoyingly hip dialogue. When Jake talks of his training, he says, “I’m getting my chi together.” Of course, the point of all this chi gathering is so that Jake can deliver an ultimate smackdown on Ryan, who will apparently respect him for this. Then, Jake will never have to fight again. Ha!
Screenwriter Chris Hauty occasionally tosses in some thin character development, but seriously, he’s not even trying. Obviously, the film is entirely constructed around the gladiator combat. Oh, but these are no ordinary fights — for CGI-enhancement plays an all-important role in classing up the joint. So, instead of finding out from a character’s emoting of pain that he has endured a broken bone, we see X-rayed bones as they break. Also, if your eardrums don’t burst from the power-pop soundtrack, you can witness the lovely sound of bones cracking. And, just to make sure that the ADD generation doesn’t miss anything while they send a few text messages during the flick, a great deal of the fighting, and resultant blood, flows in slooooow motion. So, when Ryan delivers that first “beatdown” upon the unsuspecting Jake, the camera follows the poor guy’s cheek until the blood leisurely splatters across the screen. In sharp contrast, the kids cheering on these fights waste no seconds in whipping out their camera phones and recording precious footage for their subsequent YouTubing pleasure.
Ultimately, Never Back Down is just another a teen exploitation film loaded with rippling biceps and shirtless abdomens. If that’s what you want, then go get it, but would it have hurt to have a slightly sincere storyline? I’m so bloody tired of lazy screenwriters using the internet as a plot-driving device to connect the unrelated dots and supposedly make it all believable. None of this convoluted bullshit suspends belief as much as it plays into the power of collateral misinformation. The only slightly positive thing that I can say about this film is that it delivers the most unintentionally homoerotic rivalry since Top Gun. And, I’m sorry, but that’s pretty fucking funny when a bunch of contrived seriousness is running about and trying to look macho. All that’s really missing here are a few volleyball games and a Navy commander who shouts, “I want some butts!”
Agent Bedhead (a.k.a. “Kimberly”) lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.