Best Lucky Find -- Movie
Tough call, but out of the many good movies I've seen this year, I'm actually going to go with: Never Back Down, an odd action-drama that I actually thought would be complete junk.
I found out I could acquire it for a measly fifteen bucks on sale at Christmas, so this little movie just managed to squeeze into 2010, and it certainly kept me occupied for some time.
It won the MTV Award for Best Fight Scene, but I took that with a massive amount of salt. The movie is styled as "Fight Club meets The O.C.", and I certainly agree. Though it's actually a somewhat character driven drama, we're treated to some of the best fight scenes I've ever seen, and comparing it to The O.C. seems a little unfair: the story is decent, and I quite liked the characters, whereas I don't think I could suffer through a single episode of The O.C..
Now, to be fair, it does ask us to buy a lot; and I mean, a lot. Supposedly, in a town in Florida, where everyone lives in mansions, there's an underground MMA tournament that's sort of a mix between Fight Club, an actual MMA event and the fucking street races from 2 Fast 2 Furious. The stars of the show are a bunch of high school kids who are complete and total prodigies -- the main character himself becomes amazingly competent after weeks of practice, which I can assure you is utterly impossible unless you're... well, in a movie (... You need a montaaage! YEEAAH!!) -- yet they're not actually in sanctioned organizations, picked up by scouts and earning tens of thousands a fight? Even more importantly, why would they be happy with being teenage white-boy versions of Kimbo fucking Slice rather than getting adulation, fights with the best of the best internationally and so on, so forth, in ACTUAL FIGHT PROMOTIONS.
But the weirdest thing is the outright stupid and unrealistic situation the main character has found himself in, period. But that doesn't really strike me as a big flaw, I can buy it. If there's one thing I'll say, it's that high school can be a place of craziness. The choices the characters make in N.B.D. are often stupid, prideful, but then I suppose these aren't normal high schoolers.
It gets a little absurd though. Why refuse to call the cops when some prick brutally assaults you? Pride can only go so far. Internet "social" sites are referenced a lot in the movie, but for some reason, no cops ever arrive to bust the jerkoffs running this unsanctioned tournament -- quite frankly, kids, if you're in high school and you have a Facebook, your bitch-teachers, parents and probably the police could be monitoring your account for the slightest infraction. They get off on that shit, and so do local newspapers.
It's like advertising some massive illegal marijuana smoking festival on the internet, to several thousand people. Then recording video evidence of named people beating the shit out of one another in illegal street fights. You seriously think the cops wouldn't find out? But as a device to drive a story, it works -- maybe the craziness of this little "Floridian" town can be tolerated when you realize that the main character is also a little baffled by it.
But honestly, it's all just nitpicking. It really, really is. The movie surprised the crap out of me. The acting was great, the characters were very good, the camerawork and editing is excellent, and the fight scenes were friggin' amazing.
I mean, look at it. It's called "Never Back Down" and the box-art looks like crap. It surely has to be some crappy action flick, like "Firepower" and "Sudden Death" and all those brainless 80s movies with Jean Claude Van Damme, or Dolph Lundgren, right?
Well, it doesn't have Van Damme. It does however have a bunch of undiscovered gems for actors. Oh, it also has fucking Djimon Hounsou. Now if a man who, quite frankly, should've won his Academy Award, doesn't make you sit up and pay at least a little attention, you're a complete idiot. This guy is one of the most intense actors I've ever seen, and if his performance somehow doesn't interest you, then don't worry -- the other main characters are actually very good too.
Perhaps the thing I expected the least was that the fighting turned out to be more of a minor focus. It was more a vehicle for the character development, as they worked out their flaws and issues. One of the first themes the writers hit us with is "The Shield of Achilles", which many believe is a symbol in The Iliad for the real reasons for war; to sum it up rather poorly: the reason for war is peace. In a similar fashion, the characters are fighting in this insane, ridiculous battle of unnecessary machismo for other reasons, not because they love punching people. It's not smart, no, that's actually pointed out quite well. But they still feel they have to do it, and control things for themselves.
See, rather than, like many movies, trying pretentiously to preach perfection to viewers (which is obviously an impossibility), I thought NBD was instead delving into the painful, difficult process of living with our imperfections, and improving oneself realistically through such horrible things as taking responsibility.
It's not perfect, but it certainly kicked far more ass than I expected. You've got good actors, good story, and the fight scenes, of which there are several, are fucking incredible. It straddles the line perfectly between the absurdly unrealistic "cinema violence" and believable MMA, so it looks awesome for the camera AND is realistic, complex and visceral. As a hard-core MMA fan, it's refreshing to see this -- as Bas Rutten said of this movie: "This is good for MMA."
It certainly is. I haven't been this shocked by a movie since Son of Rambow. Which, by the way, was incredible. In fact, I'm just going to quote TVTropes regarding that movie: "Better Than It Sounds - Were it not for The Dark Knight this film would be the coolest film of 2008."
While I agree with that, at least in Son of Rambow you didn't have to listen to a millionaire-wanker in a gimp suit growl at you for 3 hours.
But back to the point: Never Back Down.
Like Son of Rambow, it was a big surprise, from a bunch of no-namers, that came along and kicked ungodly amounts of ass. Like SoR, if I don't see these actors and this crew putting out more movies, then we know the movie-making business is corrupt beyond redemption and possibly run by maniacal chimpanzees.
Addendum -- I figured I'd just add something about a particular scene here.
In the final fight scene, as the combatants are surrounded by a crowd of ignorant, blood-thirsty jackasses, the movie does an excellent job of showing how those who genuinely have a stake in the fight, the fighters, the girl, are a world apart from the lunatics screaming for blood. They're not fighting for blood, and as the two guys beat one another to a possible deadly end, the horror and dismay on the leading lady's face is a stark contrast to the ecstatic howling of the crowd.
It was the madness coming to a head, but for all the chaos of the ring of people around them, the eye of the storm was not as quiet as it seemed.
I was very impressed with how, in the middle of a fight scene, something as profound as that managed to come through to those who paid enough attention. All the crowd saw was a spectator-friendly fight, but the lead characters knew it was something far more than that, and at any moment, this idiotic, seemingly unnecessary "pissing competition" could turn deadly.
More than anything, that was the last thing I expected when I bought this movie.