Never Back Down is a brutal version of The Karate Kid mixed with the formulaic drama of “The O.C.” and the homoeroticism of Top Gun. The story follows a path you probably already guessed even before watching the trailer, complete with high school adversary, the sought-after love interest, and the ultimate showdown. Plus it does so shirtless most of the time. This movie is more of a guilty pleasure for teenage girls than it is for males wanting to see kicks to the face.
If you’re a fan of MMA, you’re better off catching the latest fight on Spike TV or re-watching old episodes of Royce Gracie UFC matches. This movie doesn’t really do the sport justice or provide much entertainment for the hardened fan of the octagon.
The movie mixes its messages as much as it mixes its fighting styles. At its core, Never Back Down attempts to be a statement about the changing culture of not just organized fighting, but the proliferation of technology among grade schoolers. It tries to make the point that boxing and traditional martial arts (i.e. karate) are on their way out, being replaced with a hybrid called simply mixed martial arts (MMA).
While at the same time, text messaging and YouTube are singing the praises of those fighters, something that helped bring MMA in the real world to the forefront and pushed boxing aside as the Pay Per View sport of the new generation.
But it does so by introducing them each individually and then mixing them around like a poorly choreographed fight scene, throwing in jabs of single parent and high school drama. With the exception of a calculated performance by the black Mr. Miyagi, we’ve seen it all before.
Like Karate Kid, the hero Jake (Sean Faris) moves to Florida in the opening scenes, accompanied by his single mother. (No hilarious mention of the palm trees though, which was disappointing.) He’s immediately picked on by the high school bully, a predictable plot twist that a toddler could have written. Upset with losing the fight and embarrassing himself in front of the sympathetic hottie, he seeks out a sage-like martial arts teacher named Jean Roqua (Djimon Hounsou).
It’s in this warehouse/training facility that he learns how to be a disciplined fighter. But surprisingly there aren’t any “wax on, wax off” moments, just multiple montages of him punching a bag, choking a guy out, or shot putting cinder blocks.
Also fueling his rage, other than the smirking “Iceman” of the movie, is the guilt he feels for letting his father drive drunk one night and get himself killed. The night left him and his younger brother without a father and strained his relationship with his mother. In one scene his mother preaches about the importance of setting an example for little Charlie. So what does he do? He goes out and trains harder. You know, to set an example that fighting is bad. Again, mixed messages.
But maybe he does care, because he doesn’t accept the “Beat Down” tournament challenge. Well, not at first. Then he does. Who saw that coming?
After his wisecracking friend Max takes a beat down of his own, Jake enters the tournament for revenge. New message: friends are more important than family?
The setup, however, hasn’t been strong enough to make the ensuing showdown worth a watch. The matches are like Step Up 2 the Streets with punching instead of dancing choreographed to the latest hip-hop radio hits.