Seen Easter Sunday March 23, 2008 @ the AMC Empire 25, auditorium #5. 3 Slithy Toads
A surprisingly good teen sports film in the mold of the Karate Kid, with a likable cast and a smarter-than-average script that digs a little more deeply than the typical film of this ilk.
It's the story of Jake Tyler, who is forced to leave his football stardom in Iowa behind when his younger brother gets a scholarship to an Orlando tennis academy. He can't leave behind the memories of his father, who died in a drunk driving accident which Jake survived in the passenger side. Why did he let his father drive? His sensitivity on this issue leads him to start a brawl during one of his football games, and internet footage of this brings him to to the attention of the mixed martial arts crowd at his new school. They want to fight him whether he wants to or not, leading up to a climatic brawl by way of the MMA gym operated by Djimon Hounsou.
Jake is played by Sean Faris, who looks like Tom Cruise and has a lot of charisma, but probably isn't going to have Tom Cruise's career. Sean is 26, and this is the highlight of his filmography. Tom Cruise had already done Risky Business, Top Gun, The Color of Money, and Rain Man and Born on the 4th of July not far away. And yet Faris seems to have a little more going for him than good looks alone. That 26 thing is an issue, though. I hate to criticize the casting, which is co-credited to the niece of somebody who I go to synagogue with, but this is a particularly bad example of over-age casting. Faris can barely get by as a high school student, but you can't even say that about most of the "high-schoolers" that surround him. His chief nemesis Cam Gigandet looks post-collegiate. On the other side, Hounsou does an excellent job of filling the Morgan Freeman "Oscar-nominee-doing-good-work-and-not-looking-down-on-material" role. Leslie Hope (Teri Bauer in the first season of 24) does well and adds something to the often thankless mother role.
But let's talk about the script some, because this one is definitely a cut above. Jake's younger brother is a scholarship kid, and the film doesn't let us forget that. Differences of class between Jake and the other much richer children he meets up with at his new school are handled with unusual dexterity. He lives in a middle-class apartment complex and his mother has some job that requires her to use a uniform, and he goes to see people in big mansions with large pools. Yeah, we've been there. What we haven't so much: Jake takes the bus to the party he's invited to, and I'm thinking "um, if Orlando's like a lot of other places, that bus ain't gonna be running when he leaves the party," and I keep wondering if the script will remember this. Oddly enough, it does. Jake gets a ride home from the party in less than ideal circumstances. And he continues to take the bus. In fact, it becomes a kind of running gag. This isn't a treatise on race and class, and its ideal of mixing through mixed martial arts is probably not realistic, but Chris Hauty's script is nonetheless doing more, more realistically, than I would have expected.
Another instance of some script-smarts: one of Jake's friends is lured away to bait Jake into the big fight he's trying to avoid. Everyone in the audience certainly knows what's going on, and you want to give the usual "stupid character" demerits and lump this in with every standard-issue teen slasher flick and anything else scripted on their level. But. A scene or two before we saw Jake persuade his friend to join him at the lunch table by saying how this girl at the table's totally been keeping her eye on friend. It sets up the friend's desire to be accepted, and it makes it more plausible when he hops in that car two scenes later. Credit to the screenwriter for putting this in, and to the director for not trimming the earlier scene. This is a good takeaway for somebody who might want to become my client: maybe the characters in your novel will need to do stupid things on occasion, but that doesn't mean you have to write stupidly.
There's also just a little more intellectual depth to Jake's decisions on when to fight and when not to than you might expect to see in a movie of this sort. Toward the beginning of the movie, there's a scene where Jake shows off his smarts about the Iliad on first day at his new school. Bad movie of this sort, that scene is nothing more than that. It gives some vague excuse for the bad guy to decide to take on Jake. Here, we revisit that scene toward the end of the movie. Jake goes off to the big battle because he's like that character in the book; he's fighting now so he doesn't have to fight again. Which in turn makes Never Back Down an excuse to ponder on other more important decisions in the world about when and why we fight. It manages to raise those questions naturally in the course of the movie, and even as you resist the idea of any film like this having anything to say about questions like that, you have to credit the naturalness with which they're introduced into this particular movie.
In a genre like this, it's the willingness to sweat some of these small details that makes the film stand out. It's easy enough to grind out the product. The makers of Never Back Down show a pretty consistent interest in beating the low-end expectations.
- The Brillig Blogger
- A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.