Dir: Jeff Wadlow. US. 2008. 113 mins.
Fight Club meets The Karate Kid in Never Back Down, a generic, violent underdog story that pays a lot of lip service to non-violence when its characters aren't busy kicking and punching the tar out of each other. Though the film tries to capitalise on the growing popularity of mixed martial arts, the storytelling carts out several old-fashioned cliches about proving yourself and winning the love of a good woman while pulverizing your opponent.
Opening on approximately 2,500 screens in the US today (March 14), this Summit Entertainment production will appeal to young men, specifically those in thrall to Ultimate Fighting Championship (or UFC), the pay-per-view phenomenon that features mixed marital arts (or MMA), a hyper-violent combat sport that combines wrestling, boxing, karate and other disciplines. With no major stars, Never Back Down's main selling point is the sport itself, though perhaps the film's PG-13 rating will disappoint the bloodthirsty who want a more bone-crushing experience. If enough males have decided they don't need to see 10,000 B.C. again, though, Never Back Down might be their action destination.
The film moves to Europe and Australia through May, where again the lack of high-profile participants will be a significant obstacle. It will be interesting, however, to see what the response will be in Japan, considering that the Japanese Pride Fighting Championships was one of the world's largest MMA organizations until UFC purchased it last year. Ancillaries look to be stronger amongst the type of cable outlets that cater to UFC fans.
After the death of his father, Jake (Faris) moves with his mother and younger brother from Iowa to Orlando, Florida, where he meets sexy Baja (Heard) and Ryan (Gigandet), Baja's sadistic boyfriend who's an expert mixed martial artist. After Ryan humiliates Jake by beating him severely in front of his new classmates, Jake swears vengeance, training with master teacher Jean (Hounsou) to learn the ways of MMA.
Never Back Down pretends to have a slick, hip sheen - pumping recent hits from Kanye West, Soulja Boy, and TV On The Radio on the soundtrack - but at its heart, the film is a musty throwback to The Karate Kid (1984), another drama about an outsider who finds love and self-respect by beating up some bullies with martial arts.
Of course, updating reliable narratives is nothing new, but the hope is always that the new film will breathe fresh life into the conventions. But though Never Back Down is more competently made than director Jeff Wadlow's first feature, the fright-less horror film Cry Wolf (2005), what is becoming increasingly clear is that he's a filmmaker with no discernible style beyond the tired flash familiar from music videos. He and screenwriter Chris Hauty serve up a series of predictable story and character elements, probably assuming that their target audience isn't old enough to remember the sources being plundered.
While there isn't a bad performance among the mostly young cast, Never Back Down is just one more teen-driven film whose casting seems to have boiled down to finding the actors with the whitest teeth and best bone structure. Sean Faris (who resembles a boyish Tom Cruise without the spark) doesn't have the necessary edge to play a tortured young man who still blames himself for his dad's death. Amber Heard (who bears a passing resemblance to Scarlett Johansson) mostly reacts to Jake and Ryan's rivalry without having a personality of her own. Meanwhile, Cam Gigandet seems to be having fun sneering at the camera.
If the film has a faint saving grace, it's Djimon Hounsou as the Yoda/Mr. Miyagi-style MMA trainer who easily towers over his inexperienced co-stars. As to be expected, his dialogue is rife with platitudes about MMA techniques that, conveniently, also double as life lessons for impressionable Jake, but at least Hounsou has enough presence to make some of this malarkey tolerable.
Ultimately, Never Back Down is more disposable than truly objectionable, although its hypocritical condemnations of violence are almost too much to take. Jean lets Jake train at his gym under the condition that he understands that fighting isn't the answer to handling problems. Naturally, such sensible words soon take a backseat to the film's main draws, which are the quick-cut MMA bouts and multiple training sequences that glorify the young men's chiselled upper bodies in vaguely homoerotic ways.
As for the fights themselves, the enthusiastic zeal that's poured into their choreography may make Never Back Down feel like the teen-boy equivalent to the pulsating dancing in Step Up 2 The Streets, which Summit also had a hand in producing. But where that film celebrated human movement, Never Back Down is punishing, amplifying the bruising punches and devastating kicks so that the main reaction isn't elation but uncomfortable wincing. Almost 10 years ago, Fight Club skewered alpha-male machismo by showing in graphic detail the emotional and physical effects of violence. It's perhaps an upsetting cultural barometer that nowadays such pummelling can be used to try to sell a heart-warming story of self-discovery.
Mandalay Independent Pictures
Director of photography