I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I want them to keep making these franchise western martial arts movies until the cows come home. And how ya gonna get a cow back on the farm after they’ve seen KICKBOXER: RETALIATION? So I’m glad they’re keeping the prestigious NEVER BACK DOWN brand name alive with NEVER BACK DOWN: REVOLT, which came out on Blu-Ray, DVD and digital file download licensing transaction this week. It isn’t connected to the characters or events of the other three, and it’s a very different tone, but Never Backing Down doesn’t belong to any one team of filmmakers or DTV sequelizers. It belongs to the whole world of people who aspire to never backing down (in a good way). And that world apparently includes director Kellie Madison (THE TANK) and screenwriter Audrey Arkins (ELYSE), who bring us a different take on underground fighting movies, this time with all women fighters.
Anya (Olivia Popica, “Receptionist,” FANTASTIC BEASTS 2: FAREWELL TO THE FLESH) is a Chechen immigrant in London. She lives with and supports her brother Aslan (Tommy Bastow, The Crossing), a small time MMA fighter, while studying (and working as a janitor) at a nursing school. But one day her stupid brother and his stupid trainer get her into some shit – Aslan is supposed to throw a fight, but doesn’t (we got a regular Butch Coolidge on our hands here, guys) and when he’s assaulted by the thugs of kingpin Julian (James Faulkner, ATOMIC BLONDE) Anya jumps in to defend him, catching the eye of lusty fight recruiter Mariah (Brooke Johnston, ACCIDENT MAN, ).
(I like that Johnston plays Julian more like a fashion designer or art collector than a typical crime boss, though both of the villains being implied gay might be an issue for some.)
Anya does some quick training so she can fight for Mariah and pay off Aslan’s debt, not realizing they’re gonna lock her in a jail cell with some of the other fighters in an extremely illegal fight circuit for super rich perverts who get off watching women beat each other up. Though the movie is not overall as weird as BLOODSPORT 4: THE DARK KUMITE, the fights take place in a similar location: a round stage in the middle of a room where a bunch of weirdos sit around on fancy chairs, some with women hanging off of them. Madison does a good job of making these guys look like just the most despicable slime bag motherfuckers, whether they’re watching emotionlessly behind shades or getting drooly in closeups. I’m not sure but it seems very likely these are all actual guys who own all the corporations and were told this was a real human cockfight.
The marquee name on the cover is former UFC champion Michael Bisping (BEATDOWN, xXx: RETURN OF XANDER CAGE, DEN OF THIEVES, TRIPLE THREAT). He plays Janek, who basically does all the work at this place, menacing the fighters and transporting them from cell to ring and back. I guess Lee Charles (GREEN STREET 3: NEVER BACK DOWN [wait a minute…], FINAL SCORE, AVENGEMENT) is also there in case any backup menace is needed.
Some of the other fighters are played by Hannah Al Rashid (Elena from THE NIGHT COMES FOR US!), Bollywood star Nitu Chandra, Colombian star Diana Hoyos (SNIPER: ULTIMATE KILL) and veteran stuntwoman Chloe Bruce (double for Rey in THE FORCE AWAKENS and THE LAST JEDI). We get to know a few of them a little because it’s not as much about the fights as about them working together to try to find a way to escape.
There are pros and cons to that. There’s less fighting than in the other NBDs, and when the matches happen you don’t have a villainous fighter to root against. But they do find some good drama in the fighters communicating in the ring and trying to beat up on each other enough to be acceptable to their captors but not destroy each other. The exciting moments are when they rebel by turning against other people, like when one of the fighters falls into a spectator’s lap and he gropes her, then her leaps out and pummels the bastard. (Of course, Janek picks her up and throws her back in the ring like he’s delivering a newspaper.)
I didn’t find it as miserable as I did the similar all-women forced fighting movie RAZE, I think just because the matches aren’t to the death. In fact there’s one really sad scene where a character wants to die in the ring because she thinks they’re going to traffic her. I’m not normally looking for such depressing material in a NEVER BACK DOWN movie, but I was impressed that they were willing to go that far and do a big emotional scene with the fighters embracing each other and crying in the ring while all the dudes wonder what the fuck their problem is. It’s pretty effective.
I respect that they’re fearlessly changing the direction of the series, kinda like UNDISPUTED II did, and I do not expect fidelity to the previous entries. But I also have to note that I personally prefer the silly tone of the other ones to the more gloomy tone of this one. NEVER BACK DOWN (2008), a theatrical release from the director of CRY WOLF and writer of HOMEWARD BOUND II: LOST IN SAN FRANCISCO, is not one I take very seriously. But the idea of an underground fighting circuit at a high school is the kind of ludicrousness I get a kick out of. NEVER BACK DOWN 2: THE BEATDOWN (2011) and NEVER BACK DOWN: NO SURRENDER (2016) are solid DTV sequels directed by Michael Jai White. They upped the ante on the martial arts, with Larnell Stovall choreography, and gave White the great character of Case Walker, first as a grumpy mentor to some young goofballs and then taking over as the lead. Those found time for lots of good one-liners, badass training techniques, and fantasy fulfillment like when cops pull over Case and plant drugs on him so he beats them up with his hands cuffed behind his back. This is not really that kind of fun time.
But it gets good. The fights are all pretty entertaining, with compelling enough storytelling even if most aren’t as sophisticated as the fights in 2 and 3. I was amused by a scene where two fighters who we didn’t see as much were fighting and suddenly it was a much more elaborate affair with high flying kicks. I guess we know which characters are martial artists before actors.
Madison has been trying to break into action movies for a while – the producers knew of her from when she tried to set up her 2016 short The Gate as a feature. I really don’t understand the story in that short, but it’s mostly just a long fight of Amy Johnston (LADY BLOODFIGHT) vs. Cecep Arif Rahman (THE RAID 2, GUNDALA) and a his minions, so obviously I recommend it.
Cecep is also credited for additional choreography in NEVER BACK DOWN: REVOLT. Madison told Kung Fu Kingdom “he put together two fight scenes for us from Indonesia” but wasn’t able to fly in because of the pandemic. “But he did previz for two fight scenes with his sons, and all of his guys in Indonesia and we just did everything online.”
In retrospect that might explain the high volume of stabbing in the best scene! But that could also come from the main choreographer and trainer, Tim Man (NINJA II, BOYKA: UNDISPUTED, ONE SHOT), who always does good work, including here.
The good shit is SPOILER at the end when it lives up to the subtitle. There’s a satisfyingly savage fight where they gang up on Janek, and it’s a big rush when they run into the room and start beating the shit out of the rich guys who have been enjoying and enabling their torment. There’s a little epilogue that doesn’t make sense on a literal level, but I think it’s cool that it ends on an emotional note about what she’s been through and not some kind of “I did it, I’m the champion” ROCKY type shit. I’ve seen alot of fight circuit movies and I’m not saying this is a revolutionary one, but I appreciate that they made them strong in ways that aren’t just writing them the same as men.
On the other hand, if they followed the normal cliche of an underdog woman working hard to prove herself as a fighter (maybe in her brother’s shadow) we would have less disbelief to suspend about her being able to do these moves just from watching her brother and being a natural. That’s alot to swallow.
I like Popica, though. She looks skinny to be doing all this fighting but she’s good at putting her shoulders up and acting like she’s not gonna take any shit. Just a stubborn hard working immigrant getting through life no matter what the bastards throw at her. It would be cool if they did another one with her. It would be extra cool if she was trained by Case Walker. I would also accept part 1 trainer Jean Roqua, played by Academy Award nominee Djimon Hounsou, or a cameo from Evan Peters as Max, the nerd sidekick in part 1 who returned in part 2 as an MMA impresario but I think got too big from X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST and American Horror Story for them to afford in part 3.
(I didn’t watch all the way through the credits so if any of these things happened as a stinger I will raise the entire franchise one letter grade.)
But probly none of those things will happen, and that’s okay too. I would like to see her come back or some of the other characters come back or some entirely new characters in some other part of the world just doing the damndest to never back down. NBD, just give us more NBDs.