He catapults off of ramps, and skims over railings. Mid-air, he flips his skateboard like a pizza-maker might toss dough. A staple attraction at the Vans Warped Tour and winner of various extreme-sport competitions, Jon Comer makes crowds gawk and commands respect from fellow board-shredders like Tony Hawk and Steve Caballero.
Oh, yeah – one more minor thing. He’s only got one leg.
As a pint-sized four year-old already infused with a need for speed (helming a Big Wheel during his pre-skate years), Comer fell victim to a gruesome tragedy. The youth’s right calf and ankle were run over by a careless driver and nearly severed, resulting in lengthy hospitalizations and three years of surgery. Ultimately, doctors chose to amputate the damaged limb.
The scenario is every parent’s worst nightmare. But in this case, there’s a titanium-plated silver lining to the story. Comer’s injury merely channeled his focus and persistence into a career of professional shredding atop his Powell board. The talented youngster’s leg was fit with a snug prosthesis and artificial foot, and he was back on a board, as though the whole grueling ordeal had never even occurred.
“Never Been Done” follows Comer from his childhood brush with mortality into his mid-twenties skateboard stardom, and it’s a riveting ride. We hear his parents dispel Comer’s insistence that he “didn’t get into trouble much as a child,” while growing up near Dallas, Texas. Mom recaps a near-catastrophic domestic scene where her pre-boarding rug rat “stuck paper into an electric heater,” burning a hole in the family carpet. With a reluctant chuckle, Dad reflects on Jon’s opportunistic ability to “throw up at will” and feign illness to avoid going to school.
Later, we’re whisked through the grueling process of John’s post-accident surgery and prosthesis application. It’s an informative tutorial on artificial limb trivia: where else can you learn that his wooden foot is fit with carbon plates that “act as a springboard for push off”? Doctors at Scottish Rite Hospital giggle, as they recall the progressively battered condition of his fabricated appendage during check-ups, the result of relentless skateboarding mere days following his return home. (A friend says that Comer’s mother insisted that he have a “skate leg,” and a “school leg,” when the former became too tattered for public display.) And rather than hide his prosthesis, it’s touching and funny to hear that he uses it to his advantage on Halloween. “He went trick or treating as an army man,” recalls his mother. “Someone asked him what happened to his foot, and he said, ‘I got it shot off in Vietnam!’”
We’re also initiated into the tight-knit subculture of boarders that embraces Comer, beginning at homespun Texas haunts like the Jeff Phillips Skate Park and culminating in his 1998 attainment of professional status. There’s an emotional sequence involving the 1993 suicide of park proprietor Phillips, a legendary boarder whose motto was, “Skate for Fun.” Clearly, Comer embraced the philosophy of this one-time mentor, and misses the man who once proclaimed it.
“Never Been Done” presents Comer as one of those silent, stoic achievers who simply wants to excel at what he loves. Comer narrates the film with an unassuming, matter-of-fact quality that is refreshingly unpretentious, but it also makes us want to know more about the man behind the legend. For instance, why not further probe the athlete’s barely-touched-on relationship with his punky, charming wife? The movie doesn’t quite convince us that we know Comer, although it does assure us of his resilience and talent.
Meanwhile, “Murderball” has upped the ante for films of this type, with its masterful juggling of several interwoven stories that seem to play out before our eyes in unexpected ways. “Never Been Done” is pretty much another “up from the ashes” story – and it’s a good one – but it’s also sewn into a somewhat predictable pattern. Some editing-room savvy might have created a tighter film. A montage of Comer enduring several falls from his board could get the point across in fewer frames. Ditto for talking heads of other skaters praising the man. We don’t need peers preaching to the choir – we already know he’s great. And while it’s certainly a blast to hear the bass-heavy Les Claypool Frog Brigade strumming away behind skaters’ turns, flips, and aerial acrobatics, the film’s busy background music sometimes distracts from key interviews and dialogue.
Nonetheless, Director Matthew J. Powers is clearly passionate about his story, and he succeeds at commanding our attention with a subject that deserves attention. Comer’s comeback tale is fascinating enough to lift “Never Been Done” above its Inspirational Docudrama Genre competitors. It’s a film with legs… if you’ll pardon the expression.