Never Back Down (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Strictly speaking, Never Back Down is not a remake, but it might as well be. The premise is familiar: underdog achieves self respect through training with a master then puts it all together for the big fight. Like a pop song suffering from overplay, Never Back Down hits all the expected notes but feels tired and stirs no emotion. When one considers where Million Dollar Baby took this concept, it becomes all the more depressing how little creativity exists in Never Back Down's DNA. There's no reason to see this film - everyone in the audience knows not only what the starting and finishing points are but the trajectory that will propel events from one to the other. Those with a craving for the story would be better off re-watching The Karate Kid than enduring this lackluster re-telling.

Jake Tyler (Sean Faris) is a mild-mannered guy with a quick-trigger temper. Mention his father's death in a drunk driving accident and he'll go ballistic. His reputation precedes him to his new high school in Orlando. The school hotshot/bully, Ryan McCarthy (Cam Gigandet), wants to teach the newcomer a lesson by giving him a beating. He accomplishes this by using his attractive girlfriend, Baja (Amber Heard), to lure Jake to a party where Ryan is waiting. Initially, Jake refuses to fight, but after Ryan speaks the magic words about Jake's father, the game is on. With cell phone cameras capturing every moment of the action, Jake gets the crap beaten out of him. The next day, accompanied by his new geeky friend Max (Evan Peters), Jake visits a gym for a little training. There, a big, black version of Mr. Miyagi named Jean Roqua (Djimon Honsou) takes Jake under his wing and prepares him for the inevitable re-match.

Ho-hum. I guess one could argue that the fight scenes have some energy although, in comparison to the recent Step Up 2 the Streets, an equally formulaic dance movie, the action lacks flair. It's hard to imagine die-hard mixed martial arts fans getting excited by what Never Back Down has to offer - it presents their sport as gladiatorial street fighting and the figures who engage in it as thugs and sadists. Not exactly a positive picture. And, in evaluating the battles that bookend the main narrative, it's necessary to note that when events are pre-determined, it takes away a lot of the fun. We know Jake is going to lose the first fight and win the last one. These things are not in doubt. So what is there to hold the viewer's interest? A lackluster teen romance lifted directly out of The O.C.? Training sequences in which Jake gradually learns how to give up his anger and channel his energy in the right way? Never Back Down is paint-by-numbers filmmaking that doesn't deviate the slightest bit from the pattern. All that's missing from those training montages is "Gonna Fly Now."

Does Djimon Honsou channel the late Pat Morita? Not really, even though both actors play variations of the same character, separated by two decades. Honsou is fine as the mentor who influences by dispersing tough love and tougher advice. The sad thing is that the twice Oscar-nominated Honsou is capable of much more and to see him reduced to playing this role is almost as painful as watching Cuba Gooding Jr. in Daddy Day Care. Meanwhile, the resemblance between Sean Faris and Tom Cruise circa Risky Business is uncanny. However, while Faris may have Cruise's looks, he doesn't have the mega-star's unforced charisma. Despite his limitations, he has no difficulty out-acting his pretty but uninspired love interest, Amber Heard, and the movie's ever-smirking villain, Cam Gigandet (who, unsurprisingly, is a veteran of The O.C.).

If the purpose of a movie like this is to recycle a stock plot and present it unchanged with different actors going through the motions and mouthing lame dialogue, then Never Back Down does what it's intended to do, and director Jeff Wadlow hits the mark. If, however, a movie like this is supposed to energize an audience into caring about the main character and investing something in his success, it doesn't happen. Never Back Down is too vanilla, too lifeless for even the most open-minded viewer to connect with such one-dimensional screen personalities. This movie isn't bad just because it follows a formula slavishly but because it does so without verve or passion.

Never Back Down (United States, 2008)

Director: Jeff Wadlow
Cast: Sean Faris, Cam Gigandet, Djimon Honsou, Amber Heard, Evan Peters, Leslie Hope, Wyatt Smith
Screenplay: Chris Hauty
Cinematography: Lukas Ettlin
Music: Michael Wandmacher
U.S. Distributor: Summit Entertainment
Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 2008-03-14
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1