A Case For Better Action Movies: NEVER BACK DOWN: NO SURRENDER (2016)

I don't generally review movies that have been out for very long - it saves me time in between all the other content I have to cover for this site and... well... sleeping, eating and all of my other daily functions and priorities. That said, I felt compelled to talk about actor Michael Jai White and his prospects as a director, which I think is as equally important as his film stardom among martial arts genre fans.

As an actor he's more versatile than some folks who watch his movies may care to know or realize - rudimentary in the fact that he generally cares about film, which I like. For this, it helps me appreciate what he's brought in the last six years in exuding the subsequent direct-to-DVD distribution of the now culminating Never Back Down trilogy to its current existence with the most recent addition, Never Back Down: No Surrender.

That he cares to make action movies for folks like myself is something I couldn't be more thankful for, and all the more opportune and ripe at that with a template now provided by the role he plays in his sophomore offering from both sides of the lens. White returns as Case Walker, now living in a trailer in Texas competing in amateur fights with a fighting career essentially flailing. Upon bumping into Brody James, an old friend with career fighting prospects in which Walker can't help but see red flags, the two find themselves together in Bangkok, Thailand to help James win his next, and possibly his most dangerous bout yet.

Chris Hauty's screenplay is an excellent mix of action and drama with a touch of comedy at times. White continues to exhibit his ability to both carry the role, as well as evolve it in this latest offering in which Walker continues to maintain his honor as a stoic, monastic journeyman with an ideology rested on discipline and simplicity, prior and pending complications notwithstanding; much like his 2011 debut, his presence is discerned and ultimately treated as a threat to surrounding negative forces and thus, trouble usually finds him as opposed to the other way around.

Actor and former UFC Heavyweight champion Josh Barnett does an ample job in the co-starring role as James, a celebrity athlete in his own right whose moral grounding as a married father of two tends to fizzle with the occasional brush with bad behavior. UFC broadcaster and TV host, actor Stephen Quadros provides feasible pot-stirring as Ramos whose character seuges forward with a minor tweak that preserves him rather than befalling to the ills of lazy writing. Esai Morales is solid as the film's antagonist, Vega, a big time fight promoter who stops at nothing and stoops to grave lows to get what he wants - a plot point that conveniently keeps White prudent to the story as it unfolds.

Actress Gillian White does a remarkable job holding her own in this film in the role of Myca, assistant and publicist to James and equally an anchor of discipline to that of Walker when it comes to James's hubris and oft advances. Her romantic profusion with Walker's character is of a slow-and-steady kind but their chemistry never wanes - that they're a couple in real life is a bonus to their delivery as on-screen love interests.

The backbone of the film's martial arts millieu rests largely with Walker's adherence as a man of tradition with qualities and aspects to his persona, many of which aren't explained but are nonetheless invoked or implied. It's not the first time White has played roles with varying layers to them and that this particular role now exists in a second film says there is a lot more to this character that could use exploring in future films, and we would all be so fortunate if that happens.

Of course, Walker is not exactly invincible. While not exactly beatable to the average chump, he's no less comprised of his own vulnerabilities and rarely does he show them - part of what makes his inscrutability so intriguing. His fighting prowess is swift and defined - much to the favor of average MJW fans - which, importantly, also coincides with his more claustral sensibilities as a fighter making the action more about message than might. This lasts mostly until the film's riproaring fight finale in which all the cards are on the proverbial table before getting flipped over by Nathan Jones's Cesar "The Psycho" Braga, the obligatory towering menace Walker is forced to compete with due to Vega's sinister dealings.

The action scenes are coordinated as excellent as one would hope with at least one of the major fight sequences augmented with a brilliant show of Walker's essence; His is the embodiment of Mr. Miyagi's wisdom and gravitas with the hard-hitting, no-nonsense appeal of Action Jackson, and coupled with the help of stunt and fight coordinator Larnell Stovall Jr. makes watching actor White in his element all the more worthwhile.

Never Back Down: No Surrender isn't without its minor production flaws. Jones is dubbed hilariously and flashback sequences from the second film offer little in the realm of consistency - an otherwise forgiveable misstep considering the scale of the production and much of the film's viability. Action stars Jeeja Yanin and Tony Jaa are granted minimal appearances in their respective cameos while Yanin's delivery marks something of a missed opportunity, though less wasteful than in her second of two English-language film credits in 2016, Hard Target 2.

I mainly attribute my own interest in this film to the fact that films like this are slowly dissipating, and it is not without its extinuating affects. I see White the way I see most directors whose films I have reviewed and thankfully the last several years haven't given me a lot of substandard to work to analyze in following independently produced and small scale genre titles, and for that matter, I, for one, would like to see White continue to grow and prosper as a filmmaker as well as an actor.

Never Back Down: No Surrender lends moviegoers a remarkable universe to share in and a keeness toward venerable, signature film tropes that makes martial arts in film such the kind that its fanbase craves. Provided that consumers cooperate and buy these movies - something that can't be reiterated enough, then perhaps we can still see more of Case Walker's story come full circle, and incidentally, see White become the filmmaker we can all root for in unyielding fashion.


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