Tag Archives: C

NEVER BACK DOWN

Grade: C-

If there were still strings of drive-ins across the country, there’d be a place for this bruising but brainless teen action-melodrama as the bottom half of a double bill no one would watch very closely (though it would need to be severely trimmed from its unconscionably long 106-minute running-time—which wouldn’t be difficult, as much of it is devoted to what amount to musical montages of training sessions with thumping background scores). But the drive-in is a thing of the past, alas, as are double features, and about the only place left for a picture like “Never Back Down” is on Spike-TV, along with previous classics of the genre like the “No Retreat, No Surrender” and “Best of the Best” series.

Insofar as plot is concerned (to use the term loosely), the movie—an obvious effort to capitalize on the current popularity of boxing-with-kickboxing-and-wrestling bouts—could just as well have been titled “The Mixed Martial Arts Kid,” if it weren’t for the fact that Sean Faris, the Tom Cruise lookalike—down to the same vacant smile and wooden demeanor—who plays supposed highschooler Jake Tyler, looks way too old to be called a kid (or play a highschooler). Jake, an Iowa teen guilt-ridden over the death of his father, whom he didn’t stop from driving drunk, moves with his mom (Leslie Hope) and younger brother (Wyatt Smith) to Orlando so his bro can take advantage of a tennis scholarship. But because of You-Tube, Jake’s reputation comes with him—he was caught on film in a notorious brawl on the football field—and the local champ in underground fight contests, arrogant Ryan McCarthy (Cam Gigandet), wants to take him on pronto and show everybody who’s boss. So Ryan has his blonde bombshell of a girlfriend, Baja (!) (Amber Heard), entice Jake to a party where he goads the poor guy—via references to his father, sure to set him off—into a quick beating.

Luckily Jake’s already found an obligatory goofy sidekick named Max (Evan Peters), a wannabe fighter himself, who introduces his new pal to the Mr. Miyagi character, towering Jean Roqua (Djimon Hounsou), who runs a gym in which Jake enrolls. It turns out that Roqua has a guilt complex, too—he left Senegal after failing to prevent the murder of his brother, poisoning his relationship with his father—and he teaches Jake the skills he needs, though he doesn’t want the youngster to fight out of anger. As if this weren’t routine enough, Jake and Baja become an item when she regrets her role in Ryan’s nastiness and breaks up with him, leading Ryan to lure Jake into another fight by—you got it—thrashing Max. It all ends in a rib-cracking melee in a parking lot (shades of “Step Up 2 the Street,” though not in the rain), in which—of course—our boy snatches victory the jaws of defeat.

This is all pure formula, of course, and as far as that goes it’s actually superior, from a technical perspective, to the direct-to-DVD stuff that usually fills the genre, although there are entirely too many of those “Rocky”-syle training montages and the fight sequences (shot by Lukas Ettlin and edited by Victor Du Bois and Debra Winstead) go in for swooning camerawork and whiplash cuts that leave them a blur. (The animated CSI-style “special effects” to show ribs breaking in the final bouts are a mistake, too.) And though the cast can’t do much to elevate the trite material, some of them—Hounsou, Hope, tyke Smith, even the blank but handsome Faris—are better than the norm in movies of this ilk. (On the other hand, Heard is flummoxed by a part that requires her on the one hand to play a good girl but soon has her wrestling around with Jake on his bedroom floor after trying on his sparring gloves and saying—in what has to be the movie’s worst line among many bad ones—“Oh, they’re still sweaty!” And who could play a coed named Baja, anyway? Peters’ nerdy Max and Gigandet’s smirking Ryan—who, of course, turns out to have daddy issues too—aren’t much better.)

But what really sinks “Never Back Down” is the attempt to add some depth to what’s just an old-fashioned sock-and-rock-‘em story with dime-store psychological cliches about guilt, self-restraint, determination and redemption. The messages they convey are completely muddled in the end, anyway—ultimately all you take from the picture is the old saw that “a guy’s gotta do what he’s gotta do”—but even worse is that they too often slow things to a crawl while we have to listen to another impassioned speech or sit through one more flashback to Jake and his dead dad (a character played—in a sure sign of desperation—by one of the producers). Get rid of that rubbish and lop off a training montage or two, and you might have a dumb but effective slice of mixed martial-arts mayhem that would fit nicely into Spike’s two-hour program slots.

In its current overlong, teach-me-a-lesson form, though, “Never Back Down” is like a match that delivers a few good punches but drags on to a dull and predictable end.

ALIENS VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM

After the appalling mess of 2004’s “Alien Vs. Predator,” one could only look forward to this follow-up with trepidation. And the fact that it went unscreened for critics didn’t bode well, either. In the event, though, “Aliens Vs. Predator: Requiem” turns out to be far better than its predecessor—not good, mind you, but probably about as efficient an example of an unnecessary sequel as was possible under the circumstances.

Shane Salerno’s script jettisons all the Antarctic, ”Chariots of the Gods” nonsense of its predecessor in favor of a straightforward alien-invasion-with-chase scenario (much as Cameron’s “Aliens” turned Ridley’s gloomier “Alien” into a gung-ho battle flick). A Predator spaceship carrying some Alien embryos (as well as an infected Predator, it seems) crashes near the picturesque town of Gunnison, Colorado and unleashes the parasites upon the local population. After a hunter and his little son are dispatched through the usual chest-bursting method and a deputy skinned alive by a Predator who arrives separately to track down the ravenous beasties, all hell breaks loose as the Aliens multiply and claim more and more victims.

The remainder of the picture falls into two parallel sections. One involves the battles between the Predator and his myriad prey. The other has to do with a cast of human characters who are gradually whittled away through either Alien absorption or the collateral damage from inter-species mayhem. Among the most notable are ex-con Dallas (Steven Pasquale) and his troubled younger brother Ricky (Johnny Lewis); Sheriff Eddie Morales (John Ortiz), an old chum of Dallas; Jesse (Kristen Hager), the blonde coed Ricky lusts after from afar and her bully of a boyfriend, Tim (Sam Trammell); and just-discharged Iraq vet Kelly (Reiko Aylesworth) and her little daughter Molly (Ariel Gade). Some of them survive to the end, but some do not—and the latter have a lot of company among the supporting cast.

“Requiem” has some virtues. One is that co-directors Colin and Greg Strause (billed as “The Brothers Strause”) actually show considerable facility in generating tension, choreographing action scenes and using sudden shock effects. Another is that by and large the actors are less amateurish than one usually finds in such flicks, though none of them could be described as Oscar-worthy. (It’s also a nice nod to give the hero played by Pasquale the same name that Tom Skerritt, the captain in “Alien,” had.) Some of the CGI work is pretty good, and the scenery is nice (and generally well caught by cinematographer Daniel C. Pearl).

Most importantly, though, the script takes some unexpected turns, especially in terms of the selection of victims. People you might not expect to get terminated do—certainly it’s unusual to find a child one of the first people killed, a good sign that a horror movie wants to be taken seriously (the same thing happened in Guillermo del Toro’s “Mimic”); even infants in a hospital birth ward prove fair game. And generally the picture avoids the abundance of gore so many such flicks wallow in nowadays—the deaths here are surprisingly chaste, and the bloody moments more subdued than the norm. It also eschews a tongue-in-cheek tone, preferring instead to keep things serious. (The only obvious gag, sure to get a cynical laugh from many viewers, come when a motley bunch of survivors are told by army authorities to head for the center of town to await evacuation, and one of them objects that the plan seems designed to insure their doom rather than save them. When one of the group replies, “The government wouldn’t lie to us,” it’s clearly intended as a joke.)

On the other hand, much of the monster stuff is depressingly video-gamish, and the final battle between Predator (Ian White) and Alien (Tom Woodruff, Jr.) looks rather like a fight one might encounter between two rubber-suited guys playing Godzilla and Mothra in an old Japanese movie. There are entirely too many chest-bursting sequences, and too many repetitions of that iconic moment when a human turns around to find an Alien slobbering in his face before ripping it off. When these devices are used so repeatedly, they quickly lose their impact. And as so often happens, the picture isn’t very good at clarifying the topography of the battlefield, or giving some indication of how many Aliens there are for the Predator to exterminate. (They also seem to be much less indestructible than they once were—even a pistol is capable of downing them.)

Still, though it won’t ever earn the classic status of either “Alien” or “Aliens,” and doesn’t even match the much less interesting original “Predator,” this surprisingly old-fashioned town-under-extraterrestrial-siege tale is pulled off more effectively than one might have anticipated; even the downbeat “sacrificial lambs” denouement, though predictable, is pulled off briskly enough to avoid getting too heavy. A pity it’s followed by a coda that suggests if there’s another installment, it will go off in a rather different, much less promising direction.