Never Back Down never gives up in its barrage of teen action/melodrama movie cliché's, and its plot points weren't written as much as they were scanned directly from Sid Fields "Screenplay," but it's the ridiculous rip-offs that make the otherwise lousy movie almost bearable. One part Laguna Beach(or The O.C.), one part Rocky, one part Fight Club and two parts The Karate Kid, the film assumes that the younger generation doesn't know anything about Sylvester Stallone or Ralph Macchio, and for the most part they would be right as the material seemed fresh to pimply crowd who seemed eager to get into a movie that is neither about boxing or Karate, but the more novel sport of MMA (mixed martial arts), as practiced by the UFC.
Jake Tyler (Sean Faris, a ringer for All The Right Moves-era Tom Cruise) is a troubled kid dealing with a bad temper and the loss of his dad from a drunk driving accident. When the family relocates to Orlando to peruse little brother's tennis scholarship, Mr. Chip-on-his-shoulder becomes the new kid on the block who's not as interested in fitting in as he's feeling' frisky for the school hottie Baja "Topanga-was-already-taken" Miller (Amber Heard). Problem is, to get the girl he's gotta get over on the school bully, Ryan McCarthy, (Cam Gigande), and seeing as this rich kid runs the local backyard brawl circuit (that's virally glorified through YouTube and cell phones), he's not going to get her without a fight. After Ryan welcomes Jake to the neighborhood, with a quick and painful ass-whooping, another rich, if not more slack, teen Max Cooperman (Evan Peters) convinces our lead to sign up with Senegalese sensei - who specializes in Gracie, a form of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu - Jean Roqua (Blood Diamond's, Djimon Honsou, who easily evokes David Carradine and Pat Morita). Deep down, Jean knows it's revenge the young grasshopper is seeking, he's got his own monkey weighing him down, but he believes that he can instill some discipline in the wild child, and so he agrees to take Jake under his wing. And in a series of knock-off training montages (Jake finally beats Jean in a sprint just like Rocky beat his trainer Apollo in Rocky III, and there's also the obligatory drinking of raw eggs) Jake gets ready to even the score at the "Beat Down," a UFC-lite championship set in a Christina Aguilera video (uh, "Dirty," I think it is)
If Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant once asked us if anybody remembers laughter, Never Back Down would serve as a pretty good reply, even if for all the wrong reasons. But I'd like to ask writer Chris Hauty if he remembers a word called subtext? The fact that Jake has to deal with the pressure of being a dad to his little brother was subtle enough, and nicely played, but will they shut up for a second about their dead dad? Like the dreamy dissolves to flashbacks don't lay it all out? A few moments would warrant a "Don't make me angry," from David Banner, only for Jake it's the mention of his old man that instigates his Hulkian rage. Unfortunately for actor Faris, his desperation and angst seem much more believable through his aggression and much less palpable when delivering the rest of his dramatic lines. Ryan also has some daddy issues to deal with and they explain his violent tendencies with the shit-rolls-down-hill theory, but in end all this violence is justified and rationalized despite Jean's admonition; Jakes mom (Leslie Hope has to work overtime to bring some emotional gravitas as Margot Tyler) also settles by financially sponsoring revenge (she pays Jake's teacher) instead of therapy.
It wouldn't be fair to accuse Never Back Down of inciting an outbreak of public bullying and cell-phone-captured beatdowns, kids are already beating one another up in schools across the country, but more than comment on the immediacy of and desensitization to violent-media overload, director Jeff Wadlow assures the pugilistic youth that being the toughest kid in the room, indeed, gets the girl. Our heroine goes from one tough guy to the next (yes this is a nerd's rant), she's clearly attracted to the violence, and in an cut scene (this is not true) she asks Jake to slap the shit out of her.
And what about the rest of the girls in this movie? When they're not beating one another senseless, they're watching the boys beat one another senseless, and looking like video-ho fodder. At Ryan's house party there's a room full of Brooke Hogan's (no offense to her, but she's the Paris Hilton of the Dirty Dirty South), some of them even, OMG, kissing! The teen-lesbo-action isn't as titillating as it is cheap, it's a disturbing line that director Jeff Wadlow walks, and he seems to step more on the Girls Gone Wild side than the Thirteen side. More than exposing the sex-lives of these teenage girls - like, "This is why one in four of you have VD!" - he's exploiting the image to give his otherwise stale movie more sizzle. Another film, Nick Cassavetes' Alpha Dog was much more successful in its depiction of wanton teens.
Never Back Down utilizes all the latest camera/editing /color correction techniques, and there's a couple of bang-up slow-mo's (like those
Rocky-style jaw-knocks), but the rumbling isn't nearly badd-ass enough for it to become one of those bad fighting movies we love. It's also anticlimactic to have Jake get his redemption at the "Beat Down," instead of rising up the elaborate underground fight circuit that Ryan has already established. Not to kill it's late-night potential, but it seems like this film isn't just destined for basic cable, but specifically written for it. One may argue that the film is predictable and formulaic, but that shouldn't be a bad thing, after all, how much Coke do we gulp down while watching these movies? A good formula is exactly what we want, but sometimes the gas is too flat, or the syrup-to-water ratio is off, and we remind ourselves that we should drink less soda pop.
Why are our days numbered and not, say, lettered?