- Rated PG-13
- Buy the BD
All photos © Summit Entertainment
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
ovies like “Never Back Down” don’t normally grab my attention, but with two-time Oscar nominee Djimon Hounsou attached, curiosity got the best of me. After all, why would someone with his talents participate in a project that sounds like the kickboxing equivalent of “Step Up?” Quick answer: because it’s not as bad as it looks. In fact, it probably could have been much worse, but thanks to solid performances from Hounsou and star Sean Faris, not to mention some kickass fight sequences, “Never Back Down” succeeds as a mildly entertaining update of "The Karate Kid” for the YouTube generation.
Faris (who first gained notoriety for his uncanny resemblance to Tom Cruise on the short-lived ABC series “Life As You Know It”) stars as Jake Tyler, a hotheaded football star with a knack for getting into trouble. After his father dies in a drunk driving accident and his younger brother (Wyatt Smith) earns a scholarship at a prestigious tennis academy in Florida, Jake follows the family down to Orlando where he’s given the chance at a fresh start. Within days, Jake has stumbled into his first fight, beaten to a pulp by mixed martial arts champion and campus douchebag Ryan McCarthy (Cam Gigandet). Desperate to even the score, Jake enlists at a “combat club” run by Jean Roqua (Hounsou) to help prepare for an underground fight tournament.
Okay, so maybe Ryan and his gang of spoiled beachheads aren’t exactly the 2008 equivalent of Cobra Kai, but their existence moves the story just the same. Ryan is a big jerk, and Jake is the nice guy destined to take him down. All comparisons to “The Karate Kid” aside, “Never Back Down” is actually a very different movie. Hounsou’s Roqua is infinitely cooler than the iconic Mr. Miyagi, and though UFC has never been my cup of tea, the mixed martial arts that appear in the film are a blast to watch. There’s also no pre-training segment where Jake is forced to paint fences or wax cars, and with the exception of a brief jab at the “grasshopper speech,” the film makes sure to keep a safe distance from the 1984 classic.
Since Faris & Hounsou are the only decent actors of the bunch, “Never Back Down” is completely dependent on how well they work together. Thankfully, they’re a good team, and it only makes you wish that director Jeff Wadlow made better use of their time onscreen. Instead, Faris is paired up with a goofy sidekick (Evan Peters, who appears to have forgotten to take his Ritalin during a majority of production) and a shallow love interest (Amber Heard) that is so unimportant to the story she literally disappears for the entire second act. Jake’s relationship with his mother (Leslie Hope) is also severely underdeveloped, and while the last thing we need is more from the veteran actress (she made watching the first season of “24” bittersweet), it may have served the story better to go into a little more detail.
Though the film has its share of nagging issues (what happens when someone accidentally dies during one of these non-sanctioned backyard brawls?), “Never Back Down” is the kind of movie that if you blink, you may miss the story. The plot that does exist is entirely predictable, but it’s also not the point. The acting is better than expected and the fight sequences offer a welcome jolt of testosterone to the usual melodrama of high school politics. True, the movie could have done without such a heavy-handed focus on the phenomenon of internet videos, but “Never Back Down” is still a decent guilty pleasure that most people won’t see coming.
Single-Disc Blu-Ray Review:
As their first ever HD title, I’m willing to cut Summit Entertainment a little slack, but that doesn’t make the Blu-ray release of “Never Back Down” any less of a mess. It’s not that the bonus material isn’t up to snuff – in fact, the included audio commentary with director Jeff Wadlow, star Sean Faris and writer Chris Hauty is pretty entertaining – but rather that they’ve made some serious mistakes with its presentation. For starters, the title screen isn’t so much a menu as it is a black screen with a table of contents listed on the bottom, while some of the extras from the two-disc DVD edition (specifically, “Star Power,” “Thrill of the Fight” and “Training the Cast”) are nowhere to be found. That’s simply not acceptable, even if Blu-ray owners get exclusive access to an Alternate Angle Fight Mode that showcases three different angles for seven of the film’s fight sequences. The Blu-ray release also includes an unrated cut of the film, deleted scenes, a 10-minute fight featurette (“Mix It Up”), and a comprehensive dissection of every fight with commentary (“Blow It Up”). It might not be perfect, but this is still a must-have for any fan of the film.