Never Back Down
and the City of God
follow-up City of Men
Remember that scene in The Warriors
where the Turnbull ACs chase the heroes in a pimped-out bus? Whoa! And remember that part in Escape from New York
where Snake Plissken pulls the switcheroo on the commander-in-chief? Cool! How about that showdown in The Road Warrior
with all the modified hot rods? And the fast zombies from 28 Days Later
, and the death-match arena from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome
, and Excalibur
, and Streets of Fire
, and Army of Darkness
, and, and
…and so writer-director Neil Marshall (The Descent
) cobbles together his third feature, in the manner of a junk-food glutton topping a pizza with French onion dip, an ice-cream sundae and four bags of Cool Ranch Doritos.
Actually, it’s a fascinating conundrum: How can a filmmaker take can’t-miss elements from a DVD stash of superior mayhem, smash ‘em all together, and not end up with the most! freakin’! awesomest! movie!
of ALL! GODDAMN! TIME!!! By not creating a single memorable character, a decent line, or a moment that wasn’t lifted from its context in a better movie. You almost have to credit Marshall for the rampaging senselessness of this contraption, which sends a lithe ass-kicker (Rhona Mitra) into plague-ravaged, walled-off 2035 Scotland to fetch a possible antidote. Somehow the director wedges in pus-spurting ghouls, club-wielding punks, human cookouts, motorcycle chases, knights in armor and gladiator fights, while breezing past matters as trivial as the plentitude of gas in this post-apocalyptic wasteland. (The lack of care extends to geography: this may be the first movie ever to palm off South Africa as Scotland.)
Let it be said, though, that Marshall doesn’t plagiarize. He direct-quotes John Carpenter down to the pounding synth score, the Albertus-font titles—and oh yeah, a character named “Carpenter.” I still believe with all my heart that no movie with real car stunts, a tough-chick hero, and a severed head that thunks directly into the camera can be all bad. But this is pushing it.
NEVER BACK DOWN
With a generic title like Never Back Down
—what, was Action-Related Content
already taken?—there’s no way this unlikely hybrid of The Karate Kid
and Fight Club
could set your hopes lower without scraping the Mariana Trench. But if you dig the eye-of-the-tiger genre—which rarely rewards anyone who can’t pick nits between Kickboxer 4: The Aggressor
and Kickboxer 5: The Redemption
—you’ll recognize director Jeff Wadlow’s brawny teen melodrama as a modest surprise: better acted than needed, better made than expected.
Sean Faris, the evident result of that top-secret Tom Cruise/Ben Affleck/Adam Sandler gene-splicing experiment, plays the troubled new kid at an Orlando high school who gets a YouTube-broadcast beatdown from an upper-crust underground fighter (Cam Gigandet). With the help of a Senegalese Mr. Miyagi (Djimon Hounsou) and the bully’s regretful girlfriend (Amber Heard), the kid gets his esteem back and loses the chip on his shoulder—but the bully still wants another shot.
Chris Hauty’s script hits every predictable plot point, with flickers of offbeat detail on the periphery (like the hero’s tennis-star kid brother). But the engaging cast looks like a portfolio of future stars—especially Faris, a buff beefcake who’s self-effacing enough to make a credible underdog. And the bone-jarring fight scenes rock as hard as they’re shot and cut. It may be just OK now—but trust me, when it airs at 2 a.m. on Spike between male-enhancement ads, it’s gonna look like The Magnificent
CITY OF MEN
You’d think a follow-up to one of the decade’s most successful foreign films—Fernando Meirelles’ 2002 sensation City of God
—would attract more attention than this largely overlooked sequel. Which is too bad: the many who loved Meirelles’ high-voltage history of gang wars in Rio de Janeiro’s impoverished favelas will find this pulpy Latin American Scarface
saga just as engrossing.
Adapted from a Brazilian TV series of the same title, using much of the same cast, the careening plot fuses prime-time soap and thug-life melodrama into a crackling portrait of gangsta warfare. The focus here is on the lifelong friendship between immature baby-daddy Ace (Douglas Silva) and his more pensive buddy Wallace (Darian Cunha), whose bond is tested by double crosses and conflict inside the ranks of Wallace’s gangleader cousin (Jonathan Haagensen). It’s a sprawling tale with enough rub-outs, betrayals, clandestine alliances and secret motivations to stoke a Godfather
sequel, and the complications accumulate so quickly that the characters remain broad and one-dimensional.
At the same time, though, they’re less mythic and more human than the original’s outsized outlaws, and their humble concerns—girls, jobs, the search for absentee fathers—seem all the more touching in the volatile war zone of the movie’s embattled hillside slums, where snipers loom near every crooked alley or blacktop soccer court. The director, veteran Meirelles associate Paolo Morelli, doesn’t resort to sociological handwringing: the details of favela life speak eloquently—the claustrophobia of limited options, the fragmented families, the ubiquity of gang violence, the proximity of absolute poverty within sight (but beneath notice) of blinding wealth. When the heroes finally take a few bold steps outside their hilltop prison, they might as well be venturing onto the lunar surface. In Portuguese with subtitles.
After the jump, with special bonus reviews of