Thanks to DVD, the direct-to-video market has become a signficant part of the motion picture industry. What was once a dumping ground for stale product has become a target avenue for major studios, while more than a handful of former Hollywood stars like Val Kilmer and Cuba Gooding Jr. can always count on a Bulgarian action thriller or two for work between bigger projects. Still, stars cost money, as do special effects, so someone came up with the idea of hiring people who qualify as both: UFC fighters, wrestlers, and martial artists are usually capable of delivering a few lines, and then they can spend the rest of the film pummeling perps.
To that end, we have Never Back Down 2, which loses Cam Gigandet, Amber Heard, and Djimon Hounsou for a cast of newcomers and the one and only Black Dynamite, Michael Jai White, also making his directorial debut. Like the previous film (I didn't see it, but I read the Wikipedia entry), the movie centers around a tournament called The Beatdown, organized by college student Max Cooperman (Evan Peters, reprising his role from the original). This time, the competition includes Mike (Dean Geyer), a former wrestler still stinging from his father's decision to divorce his mother for a man; Zack (Alex Meraz), a pretty-boy boxer on the verge of losing his eyesight after one too many shots to the head; Justin (Scottie Epstein), a comic book store clerk tired of being bullied by local thugs; and Tim (Todd Duffee), who is frustrated by his mother's decision to take a job at a strip club in order to pay the bills. All four are reluctantly mentored by Case (White), a former MMA fighter whose life hit the skids thanks to some mysterious jail time.
Based on that Wiki entry, three of the major strands in the original Never Back Down were the lead character's sensitivity about his father's death, the eventual romance between the lead and the villain's girlfriend, and the mysterious black mentor disowned by his family. Chris Hauty scripted both films, and only so much has changed: Mike flies into a rage whenever anyone mentions his parents divorcing or his dad's sexuality, he eventually hooks up with Eve (Jillian Murray), who begins the movie as Zack's girlfriend, and Case has his own family issues involving his parents' expectations. The two movies are not exactly the same, but it's hard not to notice how these elements are strikingly similar to the original movie. Hauty's script also includes some really painful passages of dialogue (the worst being an exchange between Mike and Justin: "This ends here. Tonight." "Ends? This is where it begins.")
White makes for an alright director, injecting a stylish shot or two and keeping the fight scenes free of quick-cut, shaky-cam nonsense, but he's better as a performer, emoting far more than any of his younger co-stars, and giving Case a range of emotions beyond White's usual angry scowl. His only real mistakes arrive in the movie's first fifteen minutes. The film opens with a scene near the end, then cuts back to the beginning to show the build, and it's a little vague, done without any sort of "two weeks earlier" title card. Adding to the confusion, the characters are given such minimal introduction that I started to think I was meant to know all of them from the original movie. (References to the PS3 and at least one or two shots of cutting-edge Sony products also pop up, but that's not really White's fault.)
If there's a real problem with Never Back Down 2, it's that the film is hamstrung by the mostly unnecessary decision to cross from the original's PG-13 to the equivalent of an R-rating. One might expect the choice was made so that the fights could be more brutal, but there's a disappointingly low amount of actual fighting in the film until the final act. Instead, a few instances of language and nudity are included for little to no reason, which seem out of place in a film that plays like it was written for the same teen-heavy, even female-skewing audience as the original. If The Beatdown is mediocre entertainment, it's because it's not entirely sure who the audience is meant to be.
Without excessive layers of Photoshop, the cover for Never Back Down looks kind of like, well, the cover of a UFC DVD, which I suppose makes sense. It could look a little more organized (The "Unrated" banner off to the side is kind of weird), but it's fine. Inside the plastic-conserving case is an insert for Sony Bravia 3D televisions.
The Video and Audio
Sony grants The Beatdown a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation that looks clean and crisp. Colors are good, detail is very strong in close-ups, and I didn't spot any significant digital artifacting or blocking in the movie's numerous nighttime sequences. Blacks might crush a little, but other than that minor quibble, the picture is solid. Dolby Digital 5.1 is a notch or two below, registering more as accurate/adequate than impressive, with that lightweight "DTV soundmix" feel during the movie's big finale. Surrounds are active, but none of it feels quite as full or substantial as I would like. French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Thai 5.1 audio tracks are also included, as well as English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, and Thai subtitles, and English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Michael Jai White, Todd Duffee and Scottie Epstein sit down in the recording booth for a low-key audio commentary. Right from the beginning, the trio seem somewhat unsure of what to actually talk about, resulting in a track full of silences, the occasional joke, actor's names, and minor trivia about the production. Not the most memorable listen, although hearing the trio awkwardly joke about the Rodney King beatings is...something. Things wrap up with two deleted scenes (3:21) from the finale.
A promo for Blu-Ray and trailers for Arena, The River Murders, Legend of the Millennium Dragon, Columbiana, and The Caller play before the main menu (where you can play them again by selecting "Previews"). No trailer for Never Back Down 2 is included.
Even if you really loved Never Back Down, the charms of Never Back Down 2 are severely limited. If you're a huge Michael Jai White fan, it might be worth a rental for the bright spots in his performance and to see his directorial debut, but that's about it.
Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-Ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.