Never Back Down (PG-13) ★★½

Review Date: March 14th, 2008

Yes, this rock 'em, sock 'em, kickbox 'em high-school smackdown doesn't pretend to be anything more than The Mixed Martial Arts Kid. But as predictable as it is, Never Back Down is more entertaining than it has any right to be.


Can it be any more obvious that Never Back Down is just The Karate Kid for die-hard Ultimate Fighting Championship fans? Like Daniel LaRusso in The Karate Kid, Jake Tyler (Sean Faris) is the new kid in town. And an easy target for those looking to pick a fight. See, Jake has a nasty habit of letting his temper get the best of him whenever he's taunted about his dad's drunk-driving death. So it's not long before footage of the beating Jake gave a rival football player back in Iowa makes the rounds at his new high school in Orlando. Applying his belief that "to be the best, you have to take out the best," backyard brawler Ryan McCarthy (Cam Gigandet) baits Jake into exchanging blows. Guess who's left bloodied and bruised? Out for revenge, Jake takes mixed martial arts lessons from Jean Roquoa (Djimon Hounsou). But will Jake abide by Roquoa's rule that he cannot fight outside of his gym? Please, this isn't Never Fight Back. As Jake prepares for a rematch with Ryan, he finds himself falling for his opponent's girlfriend, Baja (Amber Heard).


Hounsou recently earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Blood Diamond. So shouldn't he doing something more worthy of his time and talents than channeling his inner Mr. Miyagi? Maybe the money was too good to ignore. Regardless, Hounsou brings much class and conviction to an undemanding role that even Jean-Claude Van Damme could pull off in his sleep. He doesn't resort to "wax on, wax off" exercises as part of his training program, but he does get to spout many Miyagi-isms in his quest to make his hotheaded apprentice a better person. What strikes you the most about Faris (TV's Life As We Know It) is not his moves but how eerily he looks and carries himself like a young Tom Cruise. He's got the smirk and cockiness down pat, but he's unable to fake us into thinking he possesses a fraction of Cruise's Top Gun-era charisma and exuberance. The lean but ripped Gigandet (The O.C.) appears to be the end result of a cloning experiment that combined DNA from Paul Walker and Vin Diesel. But he isn't very intimidating as Ryan, and Never Back Down suffers for it. Heard (All the Boys Love Mandy Lane) gives Baja enough smarts to ensure she stands out from the other bikinied blondes found poolside at Ryan's McMansion.


Never Back Down owes its very existence to The Karate Kid, but director Jeff Wadlow (Cry Wolf) takes his visual cues from Friday Night Lights. The film even opens with the football game that establishes Jake's reputation as a "natural-born brawler." So it's evident from the get-go that Wadlow plans to employ FNL's agitated you-are-there style of storytelling to chronicle our hero's fall and rise. It certainly lends a semblance of realism to what is an involving but by-the-numbers underdog-to-superman male fantasy. And it makes the countless fight scenes seem all the more bone-crushingly brutal. At 113 minutes, Never Back Down wears out its welcome before Jack and Ryan go mano a mano one last time. Wadlow and screenwriter Chris Hauty do use the time wisely to thoroughly explore what's going inside Jack's battered head. They also develop Jake's romance with Baja so that it is more than just an excuse to heighten the tension between Jake and Ryan. Sadly, Jake's relationship with Roquoa never really extends beyond the task at hand, and Jake's problems at home are never adequately resolved. But despite this, and the obviousness of it all, Never Back Down at least tries to deliver more than Jake's beatdowns.

Bottom Line rated this film 2 1/2 stars.