NEVER BACK DOWN - MMA Meets KARATE KID
Dr. Craig Reid
by Dr. Craig Reid
Any of you that have read my columns in Kung Fu Tai Chi over the past few years know my attitudes and stance toward MMA (mixed martial arts) fighters. For those who may not have read the magazine, basically to me the complete martial artist is one who strengthens the mind, body and spirit, thus the inclusion of a strict code of morality and philosophy, where the martial arts is a way of life, thought and peace. Above all else, a martial artist trains not to fight and learns to heal rather than hurt. Yes, combat is part of martial arts, but to only embrace the fighting aspects of the martial arts, and to consciously choose to do so with the purpose to hurt and maim for money, fame and glory, is not the way of a true martial artist. So when I was approached to write about the film NEVER BACK DOWN (NBD), a film that might glorify MMA, I was leery. But as a journalist one must keep an open mind and spirit because, after all, that is also part of the martial way.
Much to my happy surprise, the film is by no means a promotional tool for MMA, and since it does not glorify the fights or try to make MMA look like the next biggest fantastic sport on the horizon, it is no wonder that many MMA fighters are distancing themselves from the movie. In fact, the film plays more like a cross between KARATE KID and those old sifu-student Hong Kong kung fu training movies.
Set in the smarmy ten-million-dollar mansion avenues of affluent Florida, where privileged teenagers of this American Dream on steroids zoom around upscale neighborhoods in expensive cars, wearing bikinis and flip-flops, NBD is the story of Jake Tyler (Sean Faris), a small-town Iowa high school football star lambasted for his out-of-control temper on the gridiron, who has now become a defaced outsider. Considered "the new kid" with his taciturn attitude and lumberjack attire, Jake is not winning friends anytime soon, and that is fine by him. Quiet and withdrawn, he is silently suffering from the recent loss of his father. It is not long, however, before Jake's troubled past re-emerges when a clip of a spectacular football-field fist fight from Iowa is forwarded around his new school.
Under false pretenses Jake is invited to an upscale party where he is unwittingly pulled into a fight with a bully named Ryan McCarthy (Cam Gigandet). He is defeated and humiliated in the fight and subsequently wary of who may have set him up. But it is Jake's enthusiastic, good-hearted classmate Max (Evan Peters), who sees a champion in Jake. He tells Jake about the sport known as MMA and invites him to meet with his coach, Jean Roqua (Djimon Hounsou).
It is quickly apparent to Jake that MMA is not street fighting, but rather an art form he is determined to master. Roqua will take Jake under his wing, but it is up to Jake to find the patience, discipline and motivation to succeed. For Jake, there is much more at stake than mere victory. His decision will not just settle a score; it will define who he is.
And this is where art imitates life, because it is the behind-the-scenes story of the film that has become more intriguing and important than the film itself. It is indeed Sean Faris who learns about himself through the enduring process of making this film, where his efforts and commitment to the movie have helped him define who he is.
When asked what he got out of the film, Faris replies, "Training was intense, six hours a day, six days a week for three months, learning muay thai, jiujitsu, wrestling, tae kwon do, and much more. And then we would have an hour and a half of weight training, not to mention the diet that we were put on to gain weight. During filming, we were still training for 12 hours a day and I actually lost the weight that I put on for the movie. Although I have done endurance training (he ran six miles, twice a day to get into rugby shape for FOREVER STRONG), I have never trained in martial arts before. But personally, what I take away from this film is that with what martial arts I have learned, it has given me a sense of confidence, where I understand more about physically knowing my boundaries and limitations.
"If I am ever in a situation, I feel I know how to take care of myself now, and that helps you lose a sense of fear. Before I trained and if I was in that situation, things would be different, the adrenalin gets pumping, fight or flight, perhaps fear. Because actually, as it turns out, I have been in a few situations, I didn't ask for it, it had been seven months since the movie was shot, yet it has happened twice where I nearly ended up having to defend myself.
"But the cool thing is, I ended up not having to physically defend myself because of the amount of the confidence I now have. I wasn't making a big deal of the situation but I told the guy, 'Look here is the deal, I don't want to fight, but if you want to, we can do this.' And I think this confidence I had was there and it showed. Plus, you know, it is usually always the guy with a lot of spark that has no bite, and it comes down to each of us having senses of confidence that are different.
"So although the martial arts training was definitely one of the most painful ordeals I've been through, but it has also become the most rewarding," he adds. "The sports I played in movies were related to what I had played growing up, but this was totally different. I had no familiarity with it or any kind of comfort zone. There were times when I didn't think I could get through it, but then I'd turn a corner and there was a real sense of growth and achievement. Suddenly I could kick over someone's head. Suddenly it all came together. As I trained, I also realized that it's also about one's state of mind; that it is not about being a tough guy, but only for self defense."
A fan of martial arts films, Faris is particularly enamored with ENTER THE DRAGON and ONG BAK, saying that Bruce Lee is Bruce Lee and what more can you say and that he likes Tony Jaa because he's bad. After I mention to Faris that I have spoken to Jaa and shared that he is a very soft-spoken happy dude, he exclaims, "And that is the thing about being soft-spoken. He knows how bad he is; he doesn't need to walk around and express himself and tell you how bad he is. I have a friend who is a former super middleweight boxer, and he is the nicest guy in the world and he never snaps at anything because they know where they stand, they don't have that fear and insecurity."
In speaking about the script and what inspired him to get involved in the film, Faris admits that the script resonated with him on several levels; and in portraying the character of Jake, Faris discovered that he too had to choose in order to adjust his own outlook.
"I loved the script and I loved the idea of training in MMA," Faris shares. "When you first meet Jake, he's angry at the world and blames himself for everything. We all have those emotions on any given day, but he couldn't let them go. To play that, sometimes I took it home with me and would be in a bad mood. But really, it's all about pushing through it and seeing the good in life, because we don't have control over everything that happens. I had to realize that I had control over my mood. I had to make a choice to have a good day when I left work.
"I also love the message?if you need to fight, fight in a real competition where it is regulated and not in the underground stuff. It is still a sport. These guys do it because they love it, and the movie's message is fight for the right reasons, fight to defend yourself and for those you love, and that is something we need to get across to these kids in high school now, and that is why I love the film.
"They can learn discipline and self control with MMA training. These are key components in martial arts ? discipline and self control ? and you must not use your knowledge for harm."
Although Faris agrees that the martial arts is not about hurting anyone and that training to purposely pound the living daylights out of someone in the ring is a contradiction, he posits, "But it is different inside a ring, because your opponent wants to be there, he knows what he is up against. We're trained fighters and I want to see who's best. How is a sport supposed to grow without competition? How is the martial arts supposed to evolve into now? What would become of MMA if we didn't have muay thai, kickboxing, jiujutsu, judo and tae kwon do competitions? Karate had point fighting; it was not energetic for the audience. But now you can combine all these sports, and it is these things that can help to further evolve the martial arts.
"This story does not advocate violence whatsoever," he quickly notes. "There's a lesson learned by my character. At first, he's filled with anger and hate and has an appetite for destruction. He wants to destroy anything that he feels insecure about. As he gains confidence, he wants to continue his training because it provides not only an outlet for his frustration but also a path towards becoming the best person that he can be. He doesn't want to fight anymore to settle a score. That's an important lesson for him."
Apart from the intense training, when I ask Faris what was the biggest challenge of portraying this troubled teen character, he reminisces about one fight sequence where Djimon Hounsou violently (but not purposely) body-slammed him into the ground, resulting in a broken back. Faris reflects, "It broke three spinal trans processes; that's when the smaller bones come off the spine. It was not that bad; but the bottom line was that I could not and dare not take any more blows to the spine, and the doctors said if I was to re-injure it, and it didn't heal right, then I would be faced with permanent chronic pain, and I was not really prepared or wanted to live the rest of my life in pain.
"So it was a tough balance between how much do I need to do for the film and how much do I need to worry about the future, and I am not going to deny that. I still did most of my fights, did the first few takes, and then have my stunt double come in for the violent movements.
"The back is fine and is fully recovered. It happened during the second week of filming, but I didn't realize it until the end of the third week of filming, so the injury really set it and got worse. Having what happened really messed me up in the head. In fact, because of all the things that went on, the things I endured through on the set because of it, I have not been the same person since. It has really changed my mentality and has affected my life and my personal life.
"There was a month during the time of filming where I had to take pain killers, and I still don't know who I was that month. I didn't like that. I don't like painkillers, I don't like medication, I'm a healthy person. Also, as previously said, I hit the gym a lot, and did all that training and hard work only to get to that point of the film where it is supposed to be the best part and the time for me to apply everything I had learned, then to have that happen?(glares with frustration)?it was just so hard to deal with. It was scary mentally, and I kept wondering if I was going to be able to finish this film?then you have the added pressure where the film is riding on your back, literally."
To help relieve part of the pressure of being a rising Hollywood star, Faris concentrates on his family life and has become a proponent of helping to raise money for AIDS research and bring awareness to the plight of African children affected with HIV, reporting that everyday in Africa 2,000 children are infected with HIV.
It is evident that the experiences Faris went through for NBD have affected him as a human being. He is still interested in learning more about martial arts and is eager to take up Bas Rutten's offer to teach him. We all have different paths in martial arts. Perhaps with this experience, Faris has found the beginning of his own path, a path that hopefully goes beyond the necessity to get into a ring and fight someone, because, after all, the greatest opponent we have in martial arts?is oneself.
|Discuss this article online|
|NEVER BACK DOWN Karate Kid for the MMA crowd|
Written by Dr. Craig Reid for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM