A film review by Craig J. Koban

NEVER BACK DOWN jj
˝ 

2008, PG-13, 112 mins

 

Djimon Hounsou: Jean Roqua / Sean Ferris: Jake Taylor / Amber Heard: Baja Miller / Cam Gigandet: Ryan McDonald / Leslie Hope: Margot

 

Directed by Jeff Wadlow

There have been many a night where I lay listlessly awake in bed and contemplate whether or not a film would ever come out that combines a shoddy BEVERLEY HILLS 90210-esque high school melodrama with...the bloody and savage carnage of Mix Martial Arts (MMA).  Well, my dreams and nocturnal prayers have been answered - NEVER BACK DOWN is that film, one that has a deceptively simple moral message:  

If you’re a teen and have a problem that you’re having trouble dealing with, you should kick, punch, and pummel it into malicious submission to get some semblance of respect back.

Okay, it’s certainly hard to sidestep overt sarcasm while attempting to seriously discuss this film, maybe because it definitely has to be seen to be believed.  It positively does not occupy a plane of normal reality that I have encountered before – that of a disgruntled and angry young Floridian teen with a heart of gold that engages in no-holds-barred UFC-like battles of raging testosterone supremacy on the schoolyards and at lavish and posh parties.  I especially chuckled at the notion that – at these same parties – you will see luminous, super-model-like bikini babes inside the party home and in the foray that’s the size of a football fiend you’ll witness teenage beefcakes slug it out for MMA glory.  This is no ordinary film, to be sure:  NEVER BACK DOWN is a twisted and surreal hybrid of THE OC, a 1980’s John Hughes teen comedy, and FIGHT CLUB.

Perhaps even more apparent is NEVER BACK DOWN’s overt willingness to never back down from being a blatant pop culture rip-off.  Simply labeling this film as such would not do it justice.  I would more aptly and appropriately certify it as borderline plagiaristic.  It’s whole plot, right down to specific characters, interactions, themes, and plot threads are eerily similar to 1984’s gloriously entertaining THE KARATE KID.  I grew dizzy just thinking about all of the parallels between that film and NEVER BACK DOWN.  Just consider:

-       NEVER BACK DOWN (NBK) has a misunderstood and troubled lower class teen that moves to Florida with his widowed mother for a new life.  THE KARATE KID’s (KK) adolescent hero left New Jersey to come to California.

-       NBD’S teen has difficulty connecting with the affluent snobs that he attends school with.  Ditto for KK.

-       NBD’S hero is confronted by a fellow lecherous teen thug that is a master of Mix Martial Arts that takes a quick disliking of him.  Ditto for KK, but with Karate instead.

-       NBD’s hero swallows his pride early on by challenging the villainous – and more skilled – baddie to a MMA fight at a party and gets thoroughly trashed.  Ditto for KK.

-      The resident blond bombshell that just happens to be the ex of the evil teen antagonist severely complicates matters for NBD's hero by befriending him.  Ditto for KK.

-       NBD’s hero decides that the only way to defend his lost honor and pride is to seek out the tutelage of a local enigmatic martial arts master.  The master has a strict  “I teach for defense only” theology and this conflicts with the vengeful yearnings of the hero.  Ditto for KK.

-       NBD’s hero and teacher develop a love/hate relationship, but they slowly learn to bond and understand and reveal to one another their own respective emotional wounds.  Ditto for KK.

-       NBD culminates in a winner-take-all tournament where the hero faces the villain, suffers from the obligatory injury in combat that threatens his chances, but nonetheless proceeds to an audience friendly conclusion that can be seen from a mile away.  Ditto for KK.  

The plot is this: Jake Tyler (Sean Ferris, looking at times astonishingly like an early 80’s Tom Cruise) is an angry teen with a hot temper.  It seems that his dad was killed in a drunk driving accident that he may or may not have caused.  Because he has “issues” back home, his mother decides to move the family to Orlando.  While there Jake comes face to face with the resident tough guy, Ryan McCarthy (Cam Gigandet), who wants to make mincemeat of this newbie ASAP.  Of course, he does so in neo-Cobra-Kai fashion.

However broken and battered he is, Jake has a few friends in the form of the tech geeky Max (Evan Peters) and – of course – the former flame of the badass teen, Baja (PINEAPPLE EXPRESS’ Amber Heard, more than fulfilling the film’s need for one note window dressing).  There’s one problem: Jake’s not very good at MMA.  Never fear, because he seeks the schooling of a local Mr. Miyagi-like sensei named Jean Roqua (Djimon Hounsou) that begrudgingly takes Jake in and trains him to be a one-man kick ass squad…but only to defend himself.  Yeah.  Sure.  Uh-huh.  We get the perfunctory emotional battles between teacher and student and the moral dilemmas of the hero as to whether he can and should regain his honor by wasting the villain in a lucrative tourney.  Master Jean says there’s no point…but then again…I guess films like this don’t end on a Zen-like note of peace and harmony now, do they?  The final tournament is appropriately called “The Beatdown”, and we get several in the film’s final moments.

Despite the fact that NBD is pure, unrefined, and exploitative cornball throughout, it’s not a completely misguided effort.  The film has a nice visual dynamic to its many fight scenes (they are chaotic, brutal, and fast) and the film never bores on this level.  Furthermore, some of the individual performances are kind of thanklessly good.  Sean Ferris brings a certain amount of palpable wounded earnestness and sincerity to an otherwise standard hero part and Djimon Hounsou – one of our most fearsomely expressive and intimidating screen presences – is also solid in the mentor role.  He has the film’s single finest – and quietly tender – moment when he recounts the painful details of his estrangement from his father.  Watch how Hounsou shows his pain just in his eyes.  It’s a surprisingly strong scene.

Yet, NBD is far from emotionally pure and involving and, on top of its laughable imitative elements, the film emerges as a howlfest on many other levels.  On a casting level, the film suffers from I call “The GREASE Effect” in the way it wants us to buy into it’s late twenty-something actors playing 17 and 18-year-olds (when are films going to follow the example of JUNO, SUPERBAD and NICK AND NORAH'S INFINITE PLAYLIST by giving us plausibly age appropriate actors playing teens?).  Much of the film’s dialogue is clunky and hackneyed and character development is meager at best.  The villain characters in these films are always one-dimensionally snarling and dangerous (Cam Gigandet – who looks like the love child of Brad Pitt and Paul Walker – plays his teen more like a serial killer than a real flesh and blood antagonist).  Also, as decent as Ferris is as the hero, he never comes close to looking like the underdog that Ralph Machhio was in THE KARATE KID.  Ferris is tall, chiseled, and strong even at the beginning of the film, so it’s not so much of a stretch seeing him mop the floor with the villain in the end. 

And, is it just me, or is this film’s moral compass out of whack?  It seems that any level of Miyagi-do mysticism that Roqua gives to his student is all lost because, in the end, he sees that the only answer to his problems is to confront them head on in a blood-spattering, bone crunching orgy of martial arts sadism.  In THE KARATE KID Macchio faced his teen nemesis less out of masochistic glory and more to prove to himself that he could face him.  Jake Tyler is the opposite: his only victory will come at the expense of dispensing with his nemesis in vicious fashion.  The odd irony of NBD is that it wants to show us its teen becoming a better person through his training, but instead he just becomes another violent ruffian in the end.

All in all, I find it difficult to recommend this film.  NEVER BACK DOWN is KARATE KID-lite that fails to capture that latter film’s dramatic genuineness because it, on most levels, is simply too enraptured by the very violence of its hand-to-hand-combatants.  Yet, NBD is rarely dull or boring and has a sort of unintentionally silly and campy entertainment value.  Deep down, it never hides behind what it is while it hits every predictable and methodical beat in the underdog story playbook.  The film emerges as both completely disposable and...shamefully agreeable all the same.  

Much, I guess, like a UFC pay-per-view.

  H O M E