In 2008, the teen MMA film Never Back Down was unleashed to audiences with mostly modest reviews. Does this sequel, marking the directorial debut of Michael Jai White, live up to the original? No. Instead, it ranks superior to the original in both storyline and action.
The story revolves around four fighters with different backgrounds. Mike Stokes is the new kid in college, a wrestler who has issues revolving around his father. Zack Gomes is an amateur boxing champion who in his first loss, suffers a torn retina. Tim Newhouse is a “gentle giant” who despite going to college, struggles to help his family. Justin Epstein is a comic book store clerk who is more or less, bullied and seen as an outcast.
When Mike hears about the upcoming tournament known as The Beatdown, he meets residential advisor Max Cooperman, who witnessed the first Beatdown and is now running the next tournament. Sixteen fighters compete for a prize of $10,000. When Zack learns about the tournament, he decides to give it a shot despite the possibility of going blind if he doesn’t stop fighting. When Justin is stabbed and bullied by three goons one night, he is rescued by Tim and his martial arts teacher, Case Walker.
Case is a former mixed martial arts champion who is currently on probation. Under the advice of Max, Case takes in the four fighters and begins to train them for the Beatdown. As the fighters train together, friendships and rivalries begin to ensue between the four fighters. When Case finds himself in hot water with the local cops, one of the four fighters brands himself a traitor amongst the group and with the Beatdown impending, a showdown is inevitable in the fight for $10,000.
Mixed martial arts in films have had their share of good and bad. The original Never Back Down can be said to fall in the middle, with it ultimately being a mixed bag. When it was announced that a sequel was going to be made, there were the skeptics who were worried. That was, until the name Michael Jai White was announced as both actor and director. How does White do as a director? He does a pretty great job making his directorial debut thanks to his experience of acting in many genres of films over his 20-plus year career. What helps is the script, in which Chris Hauty (who also wrote the original) constructed a story revolving not just around a standard subgenre reminiscent of The Karate Kid, but one that focuses on drama in the first half and action in the second half. What stands out in Hauty’s script is that the film divides amongst the four fighters’ backgrounds in the first half. In a nod to the original, scenes from the original film’s finale are seen when the official website for the Beatdown is seen by Mike and Zack.
Aside from White, who plays the lead role of martial arts teacher Case Walker, the cast involves virtual newcomers with the exception of Alex Meraz. Meraz is perhaps known to fans everywhere as wolfpack member Paul in The Twilight Saga series. Here, Meraz upgrades to co-lead in the role of Zack, a boxer who almost loses the chance to ever compete again only to find a sense of redemption within himself. Australian musician/actor Dean Geyer makes his film debut as Mike, the new kid in school who has issues revolving around his father. What not many people know is that Geyer has a martial arts background. He trained under his father Keith, who played a karate fighter in the South African martial arts film Kill or be Killed (1977). Geyer truly has the looks and skills to be a potential action star given the right project after this film.
Rounding out the cast are real-life mixed martial arts fighters Todd Duffee and Scottie Epstein, who churn out great performances for first timers as well. There is even a great cameo from MMA legend Lyoto Machida as Case’s friend from Brazil. Returning from the original film is Evan Peters, who upgrades from human punching bag to the man who runs the show. Peters’ character of Max seems to have truly grown a set since last time we saw him and is even the one who not only recruits the fighters, but in the midst of it all, is the one who recruits Case to train them. In a weird plot twist, Max goes as far as has Case fight relative unknowns in a strip bar to help him make a little extra money. While Max seems to be unorthodox in his methods, he truly has a sense of heart when it comes to his relationship with Case.
The action of the film falls as some of the best fights seen since 2010’s Undisputed III: Redemption and with good reason. Serving as fight choreographer is Larnell Stovall, who was the same man who choreographed that very film. Stovall definitely trained the young cast well as they look impressive on screen. One standout fight however involves White. In a nod to films like China O’Brien 2 (1989) and Tiger Cage 2 (1990), Case is forced to take on six dirty cops handcuffed and White uses a barrage of kicks and close quarters attacks. The Beatdown fights start out short and sweet and it all leads up to a pretty well done finale that ranks above the original.
Never Back Down 2: The Beatdown is truly a superior sequel to the original. Michael Jai White truly shows his stuff as both actor and director. The young cast are truly superior in terms of their action skills and the film highlights some great fight choreography from KFC favorite Larnell Stovall. Definitely worth a rental, or even a purchase of the DVD.
WFG RATING: A-
Stage 6 Films presents a Mandalay Entertainment production in association with BMP. Director: Michael Jai White. Producers: Craig Baumgarten and David Zelon. Writer: Chris Hauty. Cinematography: Yaron Levy. Editing: Debra Weinfeld.
Cast: Michael Jai White, Dean Geyer, Alex Meraz, Todd Duffee, Scottie Epstein, Evan Peters, Jillian Murphy, Rus Blackwell.