Review: ‘Never Stop’ (2021), starring Zheng Kai, Li Yunrui, Cao Bingkun, Zhang Lanxin and Sandrine Pinna

November 13, 2021

by Carla Hay

Zheng Kai in “Never Stop” (Photo courtesy of China Lion Film Distribution)

“Never Stop” (2021)

Directed by Bowen Han

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in China, from the late 2000s to 2019, the dramatic film “Never Stop” features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A retired champion sprinter, who is going through personal struggles, is reluctant to return to the sport when his former protégé tries to coax him out of retirement to run in a high-profile race against him.

Culture Audience: “Never Stop” will appeal primarily to people who are interested “comeback” sports movies and don’t mind if the story leans heavily into schmaltzy clichés.

Li Yunrui in “Never Stop” (Photo courtesy of China Lion Film Distribution)

“Never Stop” is clearly intended to be an inspirational sports movie. It’s too bad that the way this story is told is bogged down in too many uninspired clichés. It’s yet another story about an athlete who has to overcome obstacles to achieve glory and possibly gain some self-respect along the way. It’s not a completely terrible film, but it drags with too much repetition, forgettable dialogue, mediocre acting and unimaginative action scenes.

Directed by Bowen Han and written by Jia Zifu and Li Bai, “Never Stop” (which takes place in China from the late 2000s to 2019) follows two sprinter athletes whose lives go in very different directions. The movie explores issues of athlete retirement, such as when to retire and what to do after retirement. In the movie, one athlete retires before his career goes downhill, but he finds life after retirement to be difficult. The other athlete, who is a former protégé of the retired champ, has also become famous and tries to convince his former mentor to come out of retirement to run against him in a high-profile race.

It’s a simple concept for a movie, but it’s not delivered in a clever or creative way. The movie’s scenes often stretch monotonously, and many of the issues in the story are handled in a very banal manner. The opening scene (which takes place on April 17, 2009) shows Hao Chaoyue (played by Zheng Kai, also known as Ryan Zheng), when he was 19, winning a gold medal at the Asian Athletics Championship in the city of Linghai. Because “Never Stop” establishes right from the start that Hao Chaoyue is a champion, there’s no suspense when the movie spends a lot of screen time showing him and his protégé Wu Tianyi (played by Li Yunrui) training and competing together.

Hao Chaoyue and Wu Tianyi have known each other since they were in sprinters in high school. Some of their high school experiences are shown in the movie’s flashbacks, when Hao Chaoyue was 17 and Wu Tianyi was 16. Even in high school, Hao Chaoyue excelled over Wu Tianyi. Wu Tianyi considers it a life goal to win a 100-meter sprint race against Hao Chaoyue. It’s a friendly rivalry, for the most part. Wu Tianyi has immense admiration for Hao Chaoyue, who is a very driven, intense and competitive athlete.

Hao Chaoyue generously helps his friend in training, so that’s why they have a mentor/ protégé relationship. This guidance pays off for Wu Tiyanyi, who wins his first gold medal at the National Youth Track & Field Championships. Hao Chaoyue and Wu Tianyi make a pact that they will go to the Olympics together.

In the movie, Wu Tianyi is depicted as being so awestruck by Hao Chaoyue, he would often follow Hao Chaoyue around like a puppy dog who’s eager to please. Wu Tianyi also seems to have a bit of a “man crush” on Hao Chaoyue, because some scenes look like Wu Tianyi might have amorous feelings for Hao Chaoyue. This “man crush” is obvious enough where their teammates tease Wu Tianyi about it and wonder out loud if Wu Tianyi might be gay. The movie leaves Wu Tianyi’s sexuality open to interpretation.

Wu Tianyi might or might not have a crush on Hao Chaoyue, but Hao Chaoyue does not have romantic feelings for Wu Tianyi. In fact, immediately after Hao Chaoyue wins the gold medal at the Asian Athletics Championship, he proposes marriage to a pretty TV reporter named Qi Yueyue (played by Sandrine Pinna), who is near the racetrack. The proposal is on live TV, she says yes, and everyone cheers for the newly engaged couple.

The movie never really shows Qi Yueyue and Hao Chaoyue’s courtship, so it’s a big question mark if this couple should be together in the first place. Audiences are not given a reason to root for this couple. It’s one of many missing pieces in the story of Hao Chaoyue. For example, his childhood history is not mentioned in the movie at all.

“Don’t Stop” tells the story in a non-chronological way. The flashbacks are sometimes abrupt and don’t flow very well with the story. But viewers see that in 2019, Hao Chaoyue is 29 and retired from professional sports. Hao Chaoyue is no longer in top athletic shape (he’s gained about 20 pounds), and he now owns an athletics retail store that’s struggling financially. Hao Chaoyue, who lost a lot of money from a bad investment in athletic shoes, is so broke that he has to borrow cash to keep his business afloat.

Hao Chaoyue and Qi Yueyue have a son named Hao Siqi (played by Zhang Bowen), who’s about 5 or 6 years old. However, the spouses are separated and are in the process of divorcing. Their condominium is almost sold. Hao Chaoyue doesn’t want the divorce or condo sale to happen. When Qi Yueyue stops by his place with a banker (played by Zhang Dianlun) and papers to sign for the condo sale, Hao Chaoyue angrily rips up the papers and yells, “No one is taking away my condo!”

What happened in the 10 year-period that caused Hao Chaoyue’s life to go on a downward spiral? The movie goes into some details, but they’re depicted in a very superficial way. Without giving away spoiler information, it’s enough to say that Hao Chaoyue had some extreme highs and lows. His topsy-turvy journey in professional sports also led him to training in the U.S. for a while.

Meanwhile, Wu Tianyi continued to be a professional sprinter after Hao Chaoyue retired. However, Wu Tianyi also has some personal issues: As a child, he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. These memories still haunt Wu Tianyi, and he’s plagued by insecurities about his past, including having a very domineering and controlling father (played by Zhu Huige).

As an adult, Wu Tianyi is also taking medication that could get him banned from sports, but his doctors have told him that if he doesn’t take the medication, it could be so detrimental to his health that he will be forced to retire early. The stress and pressure get to him, because Wu Tianyi has a temper-tantrum meltdown at a press conference.

Zhang Benchi (played by Cao Bingkun) is a trainer who has worked with Hao Chaoyue and Wu Tianyi. He has seen the ebbs and flows of their friendship. Zhang Benchi continued to work with Wu Tianyi after Hao Chaoyue stopped working with Zhang Benchi.

Wu Tianyi still has a goal to one day win against Hao Chaoyue in a 100-meter sprint race. The two former friends lost contact with each other over the years. Wu Tianyi and Hao Chaoyue will soon cross paths again, because you can’t have a “comeback” sports movie without a has-been in need of a comeback.

Hao Chaoyue, who is now down on his luck, is desperate to recapture some of his sports glory in order to get publicity for his struggling athletics store. An opportunity comes up with the opening ceremony of a sports facility in his hometown. The city’s mayor Jia (Guo Tiecheng) used to be a well-known sports trainer. Hao Chaoyue convinces Jia that he can get Wu Tianyi to attend the opening ceremony.

Hao Chaoyue even volunteers to pick Wu Tianyi up from the airport. When the two ex-friends see each other for the first time in years, Wu Tianyi is shocked to discover that Hao is no longer the confident and physically fit athlete that he once knew. It doesn’t take long for Wu Tianyi to also find out that Hao Chaoyue is having financial problems.

Hao Chaoyue puts pressure on a very reluctant Wu Tianyi to sign a celebrity endorsement contract for the athletic shoes that Hao Chaoyue was stuck with in the bad deal. Because Wu Tianyi still wants to achieve the goal of winning a 100-meter sprint race against Hao Chaoyue, it should come as no surprise that Wu Tianyi and Hao Chaoyue end up in this race. Hao Chaoyue needs the money, and Wu Tianyi needs the good publicity (and ego boost), because his meltdown at the press conference has tarnished his reputation.

In the lead-up the race, the movie shows more flashbacks, as well as Wu Tianyi and Hao Chaoyue dealing with their current personal problems. Hao Chaoyue is nervous about coming out of retirement, and while Wu Tianyi still has doubts that he can win over someone he considered to be unbeatable for so long.

Of course, the race is just a symbol for how they each man deals with life’s challenges. “Never Stop” isn’t preachy about it, but the movie delivers its message in such a treacly, soap opera style that any authenticity seems to get lost in the syrupy mush. The movie has real-life athletes (such soccer player Fan Zhiyi and gymnast Li Ning) in cameo roles, but these brief appearances don’t help bring any special authenticity to the movie.

Zheng Kai reportedly trained with real-life sprinter Su Bingtian for this role. And the actors perform their roles adequately. The problem is that, just like a relay race track, “Never Stop” goes around in circles, by repeating the same dull tropes that are in sports movies like this, with hardly new or interesting to add. The racing scenes bring energy to the movie but they’re filmed in an entirely routine and predictable way.

The movie’s supporting characters are mostly forgettable. Hao Chaoyue has two friends who do workouts with him—taekwondo enthusiast Xie Xiaofang (played by Zhang Lanxin) and weightlifter Niu Tiejun (played by Li Chen)—but they don’t add much to the overall story. The only meaninful scene with Hao Chaoyue and his friends is when Hao Chaoyue, Xie Xiaofang, Niu Tiejun and Zhang Benchi have dinner together and get candid about their hopes and fears about life and retirement from sports.

Unfortunately, the main characters of Hao Chaoyue and Wu Tianyi are presented in only two ways: by showing their accomplishments or by showing their problems. Viewers never really get to see what Hao Chaoyue is like as a father, because he’s more worried about his failing business and making some kind of sports comeback. There are too many unanswered questions about Wu Tianyi and Hao Chaoyue. And the end result is a movie where the protagonists have a lot of blank voids that are never filled.

China Lion Film Distribution released “Never Stop” in select U.S. cinemas on June 11, 2021, and in China on June 12, 2021.