In 1984, the American motion picture The Karate Kid opened up what was then an untapped market, the world of martial arts. Kid led the way for three sequels (the last of which was in 1994), a television series, comic books, and a video game. It’s been fourteen long years since the last movie, which performed miserably at the box offi ce. During the hiatus of martial arts from mainstream cinema, much has changed. Royce Gracie is no longer the man to beat, the UFC is doing well, and martial arts are, well, mixed.
That lengthy absence from the movie world is about to come to an end with the release of Never Back Down, an MMAbased fi lm set to hit theaters on March 14, 2008.
I recently spoke with producer Jeff Wadlow, who immediately wanted to dispel rumors regarding his fi lm. First, he addressed the criticism that the movie is a reincarnation of The Karate Kid, rewritten with mixed martial arts and current themes. Wadlow says, “Sure, it shares some themes with Karate Kid, but it’s also very different due to its time period. For the fi ght scenes, we worked heavily with the Machados and Gracies to make certain that the movie was ‘MMA enough.’ We would stop fi lming during the fi ght scenes and ask our fi ght choreographer if the moves were MMA enough. By the time we had fi nished, we had created a product that everyone is really excited about.”
With new technology, much more advanced fi ghting than in the 80s, and a slew of movie fi ght scenes to pick apart, it was easy to create a fi lm that would represent the best of all that is available to fi ght fans. For this daunting task, Wadlow immediately selected Damon Caro as fi ght choreographer. Caro has worked on a number of fi ghting-based movies, including Fight Club, all three Bourne movies, and the recent blockbuster 300. Wadlow was so confi dent in Caro’s abilities that he suggested to the fi lm’s backers that if he was not chosen as the producer, they should still try to get Caro to work on the fi ght scenes. When Wadlow was chosen, “getting Caro was the fi rst order of business.” Caro worked with Jonathan Eusebio in creating both authentic and exciting MMA. Wadlow admitted that making the ground game interesting to moviegoers was a tall order, but Caro employed an old Fight Club trick to make the ground scenes work.
Remember in Fight Club when Edward Norton is getting his face all but destroyed by his nameless opponent? The camera hugs Norton’s face tight, as if to give the perspective of the man doing the beating. Caro and Eusebio decided to utilize a technique that they felt was similar, but better. It’s called a “lipstick cam,” an obvious reference to its diminutive size. It allows the fi lm crew to get right in between two fi ghters locked in a ground battle. According to Wadlow, “You feel them breathing. You feel the holds. When it comes to the ground game, you really have to do things differently. People don’t want to see the stalls and the lockups, so you have to show the most exciting parts without turning the movie into a highlight reel. The lipstick cam allows us to do that.”
Wadlow’s second concern, along with The Karate Kid references, is that viewers would look at the fi lm as glorifying the street fi ghting culture that MMA has worked so hard to distance itself from. “It’s defi nitely not street fi ghting,” insisted Wadlow. “Of course, we do examine the dichotomy of organized versus unorganized fi ghting. We show how successful the really disciplined fi ghting is and we absolutely condemn the unsanctioned fi ghting. When the main character (Sean Faris) comes to the gym the fi rst time, he wants to learn MMA so he can take it back on the street. The whole idea is that the trainer (Djimon Hounsou) wants him to keep it in the gym. It was important to get that distinction right.”
Wadlow described in detail the fi rst time he got his hands on the script. “I fell in love with it. I was always a big MMA fan and the more research I did, the more I was sure about this movie.” Never Back Down will be the fi rst movie of its kind to cash in on the MMA craze that the country is currently experiencing, but it won’t be the last. “Fighting just seems to connect with audiences for whatever reason. It’s exciting, it’s thrilling, and it has a built-in fan base, so it really makes sense to connect with that in some way,” said Wadlow. When asked about competing with the other upcoming MMA movies utilizing similar themes, Wadlow was not rattled in the least. “I have the utmost confi dence that we did this right. To be honest, I’m more worried about technical problems now, like something going wrong with the negatives and we get set back a few weeks. But as far as the movie goes, I have no worries.”
UFC Welterweight Marcus Davis was encouraged by Hollywood’s attempt to produce MMA focused movies. “I think it’s great. The more mainstream the sport can get, the more money the fi ghters will make,” he remarked. While Davis showed some apprehension regarding the accuracy of the moves, he was still encouraged by the progress the sport is making in reaching out to different venues and forums. “It would be nice if they could be as accurate as possible, but we all know that’s probably not going to happen. But lots of people will start watching more MMA events just because they saw a movie about it.”
Movies in the past have attempted to cash in on MMA superstars, but never the entire sport as a package. Cradle 2 The Grave, a 2003 fi lm, included cameos by Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture, and Tito Ortiz. For Wadlow, that path is the exact opposite of what he wanted. “When would you go out into the city and see Tito fi ghting in an alley? It wouldn’t happen. It was more important that this was realistic, and fi lming in Orlando with local guys who could fi ght helped us to reach that goal.” With Never Back Down leading the way for a laundry list of upcoming fi ghting movies and representing the fi rst real merger between the sport and the entertainment world, one thing is clear: mixed martial arts has arrived.