Review of Never Back Down


Movie Review: "Never Back Down"

-- Rating: PG-13
Length: 110 minutes
Release Date: March 14, 2008
Directed by: Jeff Wadlow
Genre: Action/Drama

-- "Never Back Down" is a fight film starring Sean Faris in the lead role alongside costars such as Cam Gigandet, Amber Heard, and Djimon Hounsou. Director Jeff Wadlow has been directing and writing feature films since 2002, primarily in the action and horror genres. The theatrical release of "Never Back Down" is rated PG-13 for violence, some sexuality, and language. An unrated version is available on DVD, which contains more blood and nudity.

Jake Tyler (Sean Faris), his mother Margot (Leslie Hope), and his younger brother Charlie (Wyatt Smith) have recently moved to Orlando, Florida, so that Charlie can pursue a career as a professional tennis player. Jake already has a reputation for having a quick temper due to the circulation of a video of him brawling with another football player.

Jake is invited to a party by his classmate Baja Miller (Amber Heard), where he gets into a fight with Baja's boyfriend, Ryan McCarthy (Cam Gigandet), the school fighting champion. Jake loses the fight, but classmate Max Cooperman (Evan Peters) tells Jake about mixed martial arts, a fighting style that Jake wishes to learn. Max introduces Jake to MMA master Jean Roqua (Djimon Hounsou), who agrees to train Jake on the condition that he not use his fighting skills outside the gym.

Baja breaks up with Ryan because of his fight with Jake, causing Ryan to become very angry. Jake is ready to defend Baja, but Ryan leaves after merely insulting Jake. Jake later gets into a fight with a group of boys that is filmed and uploaded to the Internet. This incident improves Jake's social status, which only makes Ryan hate Jake even more. Ryan then challenges Jake to compete in a fighting tournament known as the Beatdown.

Roqua has already banished Jake from his gym due to his brawling tendencies but agrees to take him back. Jake begins training with Roqua but later decides not to enter the Beatdown. Ryan finds out that Jake does not want to fight after all and beats up Max, causing Jake to change his mind once again. Jake and Ryan enter the tournament and begin winning matches. Both fighters make it to the semifinals, where Ryan is disqualified. Jake forfeits his next match, and the two men fight in the parking lot, where Jake eventually defeats Ryan.

"Never Back Down" is essentially the story of a young man who tries to turn his life around by learning MMA. This plot places the film in the company of well-known fight films such as the "Rocky" series, "The Karate Kid," and "Diggstown." The essential elements for films in this genre include someone to cheer for, someone to root against, and plenty of training montages. "Never Back Down" certainly fulfills these requirements.

Jake's defining character trait in this film is his inability to refrain from fighting when someone taunts him about his father's death. Audience members can reliably expect Jake to respond with his fists whenever an opponent brings up this subject. Faris has a strong resemblance to a young Tom Cruise, a resemblance that the director emphasizes by eliciting a performance from Faris that is reminiscent to that of Cruise in "All the Right Moves."

As the villain in the film, Ryan has some personal issues that will generate some sympathy among members of the audience. Nevertheless, the audience will want him soundly beaten by the time the film reaches its climax. The required romance between Jake and Baja is not the high point of the film, although it is certainly an improvement over the stiff chemistry between Ralph Macchio and Elisabeth Shue in "Karate Kid." Evan Peters also does his job well as Max Cooperman, the amusing sidekick.

Djimon Hounsou provides a completely credible performance as the inspiring coach Jean Roqua in this film. He uses a minimalist approach to this role and does not give any long speeches, although the audience will recognize one speech as a reference to the famous "Grasshopper speech" from the television series "Kung Fu." Hounsou also effectively combines a calm demeanor with his imposing size.
"Never Back Down" has an abundance of training montages, even by the liberal standards of a fight film. Fans of this genre should have no trouble recognizing the beach run between Jake and Jean that faithfully recreates the similar scene from "Rocky III." The fight sequences are realistic and will cause audience members to wince at the convincing impact of the fighters' blows. The fighting in this film also includes a blur of holds, flips, and tap-outs.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars