While sports reporters have sat back and lamented laboriously about the apparent death of "the sweet science" (aka, boxing), mixed martial arts and its various pugilistic paradigms (cage fighting, pit fighting, bare knuckles, etc.) have slowly taken over the squared circle demographic. Returning the art of kicking someone's ass to the days of no holds barred bedlam, this new breed of brawl is like Thunderdome without the random Tina Turner appearances. It's pure brutality and body builder frescos, aggression laced with nothing except amped adrenalin. Now, in an attempt to broaden their brawny appeal, certain MMA superstars have made a movie. Entitled Never Surrender, it's as shameless as it is packed with the kind of product a videogame fed fight fan of this new style of smackdown would adore.
Diego Carter has just won the championship belt in his professional cage fighting division. How does he celebrate? He hooks up with some random Russian babe at a club and ends up competing in an illegal underground fight tournament. The stakes? Lots of cash - tax free - and the "use" of a sexual consort. If you win, you get your opponent's bed buddy for the night. If you lose - well, Diego never loses, so that's not important. While his friends and brother obsess over his whereabouts, our hero continues to kick butt and sample the "spoils" of his victories. But when he learns that the ladies are white slaves to the competition's director, an evil man named Seifer, and that there is really no hope of escape, Diego decides to settle things once and for all - and there's only one place where he meters out his brand of justice…in the ring!
Never Surrender is perfect man cave entertainment. It's all fisticuffs and fetching females in various states of undress. It's testosterone fueled with ludicrousness, a movie so unabashedly aimed at the crotch of its potential viewers that it barely comes up for some fresh, musk free air. The brainchild of former champion/fighter extraordinaire Hector Echavarria (who wrote, produced, directed AND stars here), this is merely an excuse for 89 breezy minutes of sex and violence. When Diego and his pals aren't messing up wannabes who think they can challenge their well chiseled sense of propriety, they're beating the snot out of each other in ADD edited action scenes. It has to be said that, as a filmmaker, Echavarria gets the concept of celluloid clashes right. His fights are gladiatorial in nature, ebbing and flowing before faces are smashed directly into the canvas.
He also loves the ladies. While the primary casting commitment needed to be an actress here revolves around a desire to show off your dirty pillows, our director makes the most of his monkey business. It's as if Zalman King stepped off the set of Red Shoe Diaries circa 1992 and decided to make Bloodfist IX: Tits and Tap Outs. The longue lizard muzak in the background. The emphasis on nubile flesh being literally manhandled by battle weary hunks. If it weren't for the post-modern LA/Las Vegas setting, you'd swear this was some kind of perverse peplum. Scattered throughout are Eschavarria's pals - men with names like Georges "Rush" St-Pierre, Anderson "The Spider" Silva, BJ "The Prodigy" Penn, and someone this critic has actually heard of, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson. Together, they turn a nonstop barrage of barely believable elements into a grand goofy guilty pleasure.
The biggest props, however, need to go to Patrick Kilpatrick as the vile, villainous Seifer. This is a meat puppet who clearly believes every sentiment slipping out of his chiseled, cauliflowered façade. Though he's not a professional fighter, he has the look of someone who has used his biceps instead of his brains to solve problems. Attempting a passable Eastern European accent (lots of V-ed "W"s here), he comes across as malevolence housed in a steroided stump of a human being. He's the reason we care about anything here. His omnipresent threat, positioned against the inevitability of a last act showdown, pushes Never Surrender forward where it would otherwise stumble and stop.
As for our multifaceted lead, Echavarria suffers from his resemblance to another '80s icon. When you squint your eyes and add a pronounced Bronx honk, this Argentine athlete looks striking like Andrew Dice Clay, down to the slicked back hair and chest forward persona. If he wasn't spewing Shaolin style proverbs about being true to yourself, you'd swear he'd be cracking wise with curse-word laden nursery rhymes. Otherwise, he's like the rest of the fighters present - capable, if not very polished. They can definitely stand tall during the well choreographed fight scenes. But give them a ream of dialogue, or even worse, a silent sequence where they must react to something off camera, and they turn into Carl Lewis throwing out the first pitch at a 2003 Seattle Mariners' game. They're not bad, just a little befuddled by thinking with anything other than their mitts.
As for the DVD, Lionsgate does little to celebrate this attempt at cinema. There's a nice, EPK-like Making-of, which tends to let the montages, and not the cast and crew, do the talking. Then there's "Anatomy of a Fight", which does a much better job of explaining Echavarria's directing style and the amount of work that went into 'faking' these fights. Last but definitely least, the horrid half-metal musings of a band known as 12 Stones gets a chance to remind us of how awful the opening song is by offering "Adrenaline" as an actual video. Joy. What would have been nice is a commentary track, Echavarria and his fellow fighters settled down to explain their love of MMA and the sport in general. This would help those outside the mixed martial arts sphere of influence understand the men involved, and the attraction to such brazen brutality.
If all you want is groin-grabbing entertainment that never even attempts to engage you on an intellectual level, then Never Surrender will be your flawless fight club companion. It's unapologetic at delivering exactly what you expect from a movie made up of MMA members, and it delivers said viciousness with enough panache and bare bodkin to serve its demographic very well indeed. As it continues to put traditional boxing in its place, as it removes the tag of art from anything having to do with the muscular destruction of another human's being, mixed martial arts moves closer and closer to the kind of professional "status" that wrestling once enjoyed - a massive, multimedia spectacle that was eventually undone by the inability to deny how staged it all was. This genre is far from fake. Still, it has a way to go to achieve universal appeal - and Never Surrender is an excellent example of why.