Thursday, March 20, 2008

Mean Boys

Last night my friend Sarah and I went to see Never Back Down, the new ultimate fighting movie starring Sean Faris (Life As We Know It, one of my fave canceled series), and Cam Gigandet (The OC, one of my fave series, period). We were prepared to revel in campy badness-- we were there to see sweaty half-naked boys pummel each other, not great cinema-- but the film was surprisingly decent. It's like a good B-movie, essentially. Faris stars as Jake Tyler (a made-up name if ever there was one), a troubled teen who moves with his family to Orlando and finds he can't escape his fight-heavy past. In one of the film's more amusing touches, a video of his opening tussle with a football player has already made the rounds at his new school-- seen in a montage of wired teens watching it on their laptops and iPhones. (After Cloverfield and Diary of the Dead, I think it's safe to declare 2008 the Year of the YouTube Movie. What's next, Hamlet as shot on a cell phone camera?) Jake is invited to a party by a non-descript blonde cutie (Amber Heard) named Baja (?!), but it turns out to be an ambush: Ryan McCarthy, a popular blonde Nazi with abs of steel, wants to beat the shit out of Jake in front of half the school. Jake decides he can't give up the fight, so to speak, and takes the advice of adoring would-be heavyweight Max (Evan Peters) to join up with wise trainer Jean (Djimon Hounsou). Jean teaches Jake how to tame his emotions and improve his fight skills, leading to a final showdown (naturally) with the beyond-maniacal Ryan. Along the way, Jake begins a romance with Baja (she's got curves to spare, but there's zero chemistry between the two and it's one of those underwritten we-have-to-have-something-with-a-girl things) and tries to come to terms with the death of his father. Through it all is, naturally, an undercurrent of simmering homeroticism, from the moment early on when an announcer proclaims, "These two have been going at it all night!" to Ryan stripping off his shirt and pants for he and Jake's first match to the scene in which Ryan holds Jake down and growls that they're going to "get it on" soon. Other than these amusing double entendres, there's not really anything new here, but the cast is likable (Oscar-nominated Hounsou naturally out-acts everyone else) and the cinematography, production design, and music are all polished. The fight scenes are effective and well-edited without falling into that MTV/ADD style that plagues too many action flicks these days. Gigandet has a real knack for playing Adonis-type sociopaths; as Sarah remarked, "He can do that smile where he's almost sweet, but then he's not." He's the type of guy who could convince your mother he was an upstanding young man, then turn around and knee you in the groin. Hard. The only aspects of the performance that rang hollow were essentially the writers' fault: one lame scene with a domineering dad isn't enough to humanize or explain Ryan, and a moment late in the movie would seem to imply that he's actually learned some sort of lesson, and that he and Jake now have a mutual respect for each other. (Yeah, right! This ain't Mean Girls.) Of course, you have to wonder what it says about today's youth culture that there's such a ravenous, file sharing audience for Ryan's demented bloodsports. But that's a matter for another, deeper movie. This one is for those of us who are fight fans-- or who just like hot, sweaty men.

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