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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Never Back Down

My cousin Rodney, who regular readers know is gayer than a Christmas Eve wedding at DisneyWorld, was salivating like one of Pavlov’s dogs to go see Never Back Down this week at the Essex Cinemas. Me? I’d never heard of it. It is an orphan movie if ever there was one. Made by Summit Entertainment and released through Mandalay Independent Pictures, this baby didn’t have a chance at a flashy promotional campaign. These two “studios” have the clout in Hollywood that Elliot Spitzer AND Larry Craig have in the political arena these days. Why they couldn’t have scraped together a couple of shekels and thrown a few ads for this teencentric skin show on MTV at least is beyond me.

As far as I know the only advertising Summit may have done was through gossipy on-line gay magazine sites because Rodney certainly knew all about
Never Back Down. He was practically giddy before the lights went down and told me that he and his gang had created their own Never Back Down game, which I was about to hear described when suddenly two young men came into the theater. Did I mention that until this moment Rodney and I were the only ones in the theater who had come to see this epic?

Rodney hunkered down in his chair from the top row and pressed his head against my shoulder. “Watch what they do,” he whispered. “If they’re straight boys, they’ll leave an empty seat between them when they sit down.” Sure enough, the two chose to sit in a row near the front and
automatically left a vacant space between them. Rodney snickered. “That’s what we call the ‘gay chair.’ It’s the ‘safe’ space that straight boys always put between themselves so no one will even remotely under any circumstances get the wrong idea, don’tcha know. God forbid their elbows might brush up against one another on the armrest and turn them into homos. ” He rolled his eyes and I nodded in understanding. It certainly made sense to me. These two definitely appeared as heterosexual as could be to me. They were dressed in non-descript Walmart knock-offs of L.L. Bean coats and generic jeans and they were talking about major league sports. They would hardly fit in at places like that Halloween party at Manilow’s where Seacrest was dressed in those trés adorable Peter Pan tights while feeding marshmallows to Simon Cowell as he lay supine in his Cleopatra drag on the liter his bodyguards had carried him in on. Oh, you weren’t invited to that one either? Well, then never mind. Let’s just talk about the movie.

Never Back Down is the story of troubled 16-year-old Jake Tyler (played by 26-year-old Sean Faris; Yours, Mine and Ours), who is forced to move with his widowed mother and younger brother to Orlando to accommodate his brother’s amazing career as a childhood tennis prodigy. While Mom Margot (Leslie Hope; tv’s “Runaway”) is busy supporting the family, shuttling 12-year-old Charlie (Wyatt Smith; The Pledge) to all of his tennis tournaments, and failing to come to grips with her own grief at the loss of her husband, Jake has his own demons to deal with.

Jake has to live down his reputation as a hothead fighter which has followed him all the way from Iowa thanks to YouTube. Right before the family left their home there, one of Jake’s opponents in an intramural football game goaded him into a fight by making snide comments about Jake’s father’s drinking, well aware that it was a drunken driving accident that killed the senior Tyler. So Jake naturally went meshugah and beat the crap out of the guy while everybody in the stands with a cell phone recorded it and put it up on the Internet by the next day.

Now in a new school, it takes about five minutes before Jake is called out by the rich blonde stud, king of the institution, Ryan McCarthy (25-year-old Cam Gigandet; tv’s “The O.C.”). The second he came on screen I heard an audible gasp in the chair next to me and I knew immediately why Rodney brought me to this movie. So much air was so suddenly sucked away from my general vicinity I almost fainted. I thought an airplane engine had dropped in from the ceiling.

Really, I couldn’t blame Rodney. This Cam fellow is quite a tasty snack on a cracker, if you know what I mean. Of course, here he plays the villain because he is rich, spoiled and obviously has a tanning bed at home as well as a personal trainer, salon-enriched frosted golden tips, and clothes direct from the pages of Details magazine.

I love when guys ten years older than high school age play that certain younger age because it helps erase the reality of what high school was really like. These guys are self-confident, have no skin outbreaks, are way better groomed, and seem to be awake and charming. Imagine ~ no zits, no pit odor, and no drug hangovers. Definitely not my high school. Anyway, this high school, which seemingly has only one class and no security, has a very active “fight club” going. Apparently everything in Orlando, not just the amusement parks, but the “real lives” of their “teens” are based on old movies. Besides the junior version of Fight Club, in no time Jake finds himself dogged by a new best friend, Max Cooperman (Evan Peters; Mama’s Boy), who has no doubt noticed that Jake/Sean looks uncannily like a young Tom Cruise (before he went all alien Xenu lovin’ on us) and so Max wants desperately to be Jake’s wingman. Poor Max may like hanging out with the hot bodied Jake, but if he had ever watched Top Gun and knew what being Tom Cruise’s wingman got you, he might have rethought the position. In that movie, wingman Goose literally got his goose cooked before the third reel.

You’ve got to love Max though. He’s the perfect buddy. He’s not quite what you could call handsome, more like ‘quirky,’ and he’s just Jewish enough to keep him from ever being the protagonist in a movie like this, which is made for the Barbie & Ken crowd. Well, the Ken crowd anyway. It’s also Max who is the practicing Karate Kid on board, and that is a key role considering that in their first dust-up Ryan tricks Jake into fighting when he least expects to and it leaves him half-naked and sweaty in front of a crowd of at least 500 of Ryan’s closest and dearest friends, all of whom have dropped by for a cocktail party even though they are all supposedly of high school age.

Rodney really liked seeing the Tom Cruise lookalike lying in a wet heap on the pavement next to
Ryan’s pool. “Now you know why you should Never Back Down,” whispered my cousin. “You’re liable to get a foot up your—“

“Shhhh!” I hushed. I was beginning to get the idea of the game he was going to tell me about before the movie started.

I wanted to watch Max introduce Jake to his trainer, the Brazilian Marshall Arts Master Jean Roqua (Djimon Hounsou; Eragon). I’ve always like Djimon Hounsou and was surprised to see him classing up this joint. He makes a sensational sensei, with just the right balance of drill sergeant and surrogate father to become a sympathetic character in spite of being so hard on his charges. It is his relationship with Jake that is the key to healing both of their individual internalized grief and pain. Hounsou’s performance is
Oscar-worthy in a picture that will otherwise disappear quickly.

It’s a shame the entire film will be lost to the dvd bargain bin in no time due to a lack of big names or promotion, because despite some of the predictable material the performances ring true and the action scenes are exciting to some (me) and homo-erotic to others (Rodney and who-know-how-many-people-at-the-Provincetown-Theater and beyond).

I did notice that the two guys down front were a little uncomfortable at how the men in the movie tended to share a special bond, an unspoken but deep understanding and respect shared in long, hungering glances, signaling their want for more, after they had pummeled the brains out of one another. They both squirmed uncomfortably in their seats and made a mad dash for the exit before the credits rolled. “They loved it!” proclaimed Rodney. “They can hardly wait to go home and slap the s**t out of one another.” He got that twinkle in his eye that always spells trouble, and I knew it would make no difference if I told him not to say what was percolating back there. “I wonder which one will back down first?”

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