By: John M Jerva
DTV in name only sequels to popular action films have always been a curious enjoyment for me. Are they attempts at capitalizing on the name of a popular film to make money? You betcha. Look, I totally understand why it happens and even though these follow ups have nothing to do with the original most of the time, I still enjoy them for the most part.
One shining example of this is the Jarhead series. The original was a dramatic message about the absurdity of war but the subsequent sequels turned it into an action DTV spectacle. They are purely entertaining run and gun military actioners and yes they are right in my wheelhouse.
Another in name only sequel franchise is the MMA infused Never Back Down series which first featured Sean Farris and Cam Gigandet in a modern day MMA retelling of The Karate Kid. The original is a favorite of mine and mostly due to the fact that Djimon Hounsou was in it and he elevates any film that he’s in. Farris and Gigandet were solid too and there was an adequate dose of fight action to be had.
The first two sequels upped the ante as resident martial arts and action star Michael Jai White took over not only starring in but directing them as well. They were not necessarily in name only sequels as Evan Peters appeared in the sophomore entry reprising his character of Max Cooperman from the original in the second thus building a bridge of consistency between the first film and second. Yeah that was it but just that simple bit of casting coupled with extensive, solid fight action from White made number two and three solid additions to the franchise.
This week sees the release of the fourth installment of the franchise titled Never Back Down: Revolt and now we truly have an in name only sequel that has nothing to do with the previous films. That normally isn’t a bad thing with me but unfortunately this entry is a letdown as it is a somewhat sluggish affair with major pacing issues and it’s surprisingly light on actual MMA action.
Second time feature film director Kellie Madison takes over in the director’s chair this time and when the project was first announced, I was intrigued as Madison helmed the bone breaking action short film The Gate which stars martial arts phenomena Amy Johnston from Accident Man as well as The Raid and John Wick 3’s Cecep Arif Rahman. That short was an ambitious and creative project that dazzled in the fight choreography department so I was keen to see what Madison had to bring to the table with a full length feature fight flick.
This time around, the franchise switches things up and goes for a female centric entry with Olivia Popica taking the starring reigns as she plays Anya who has just relocated to England from Chechnya with her brother Aslan played by Tommy Bastow. Aslan is an MMA fighter who is looking to succeed in the brutal world of fighting while Anya is going to school to better herself.
Unfortunately Aslan wants a quick payday and he agrees to throw a match that is staged by ruthless criminal Julian (James Faulkner). It seems like a sure bet but Aslan’s pride gets the better of him and he ends up winning the fight to the dismay of his trainer Davy (Cameron Jack) who set the whole thing up. Now Julian wants the money he lost from Aslan’s poor decision making and when he sees Anya fight, he comes up with a dastardly plan.
In order to erase Aslan’s debt, Anya agrees to fight for Julian and his evil collaborator Mariah (Brooke Johnston). Unfortunately for Anya, this isn’t on the up and up and she gets kidnapped and forced to fight in a deadly underground fighting ring where women are put on display to beat each other for the amusement of greedy, sadistic viewers who bet on the outcome.
To make matters worse, Julian and Mariah have a ruthless and lethal enforcer in Janek, played by MMA hall of famer Michael Bisping. Get out of line or don’t do something expected of you and Janek will make you regret that decision. Janek gleefully beats down the women if they so much as look the wrong way.
Oh did I forget to mention that if you outlive your usefulness to the said underground fight ring, you’re then sold off to Albanians and forced to live out your days in white slavery. Yeah, there’s also that to contend with.
Anya is strong however, and she devises a plan to free herself and the rest of the women. This all leads up to the revolt in the title of the movie as Anya and the group fight and claw to escape the clutches of Mariah and Julian’s deadly criminal empire as Aslan tries desperately to find his sister.
First up, let me just say that I was on board with the switching of genders this time around and I’m all for women kicking ass on screen and have been for decades. Popica is pretty solid as Anya and she does make for an interesting and sympathetic character. All she wanted to do was help her brother and this is what she gets for her troubles.
Popica is also a force in the fight action as she looks authentic and seasoned. When she dishes out some MMA moves, she looks realistic and she definitely trained hard for the film as it shows in the finished product.
Unfortunately, the rest of the movie is just mediocre. If you make an MMA underground fight film then I believe you should actually put in MMA fights. There are a few here and there sprinkled throughout but for the most part Revolt suffers from slow pacing and missed opportunities. We have Aslan and Anya fight once each towards the beginning and that’s basically it until the finale. Even then, the climax isn’t any type of match but an actual riot where Anya and the girls attempt their breakout. It’s suitably savage and brutal in its execution but by then it’s too little, too late.
As Janek, MMA superstar Michael Bisping (Triple Threat) is sorely underused as he is front and center in the movie’s marketing but he is given little to do in the movie. Bisping is highlighted on the home video box cover art but he is more of a supporting player. That’s fine and all but Bisping never truly does any fighting except towards the end when he is unceremoniously taken out by Anya and the girls. It’s a satisfying end to his reprehensible character but if you put Bisping in an MMA fight film you should probably actually have him do the stuff he’s known for.
Overall, Never Back Down: Revolt could have been much better than it was and is a rousing missed opportunity. Director Kellie Madison does have a great eye for on screen fighting but unfortunately here there’s not much of it. I would love to see her get more opportunities with better material. Olivia Popica is decent and the drama is legit but we never really get to see her stuff and Michael Bisping is mostly left on the sidelines for the running time. This entry in the franchise is sadly an MMA movie without any actual MMA in it.