Starring: Sean Faris, Djimon Hounsou, Amber Heard
Directed by: Jeff Wadlow (“Cry Wolf”)
Written by: Chris Hauty (“Homeward Bound 2: Lost in San Francisco”)
With the ever-growing popularity of Mixed Martial Arts (if you don’t know who the Gracie family is this movie probably isn’t for you), it was only a matter of time before a feature film on the grueling sport found its way to the theater. It’s a disappointment, however, that “Never Back Down” is the one to start the trend.
Like a 21st century version of “The Karate Kid” (although it couldn’t hold its own against the likes of Danielson and Mr. Miyagi) mixed with the annoying aspects of something like “The O.C.” “Never Back Down” follows the story of a Jake Tyler (Faris), a high school kid who moves to Orlando with his family to start a new life only to be singled out by a bully (a la the Cobra Kai) whose only concern is to inflict physical pain on the new kid in town.
The bully in this instance is Ryan McCarthy (Cam Gigandet), a popular kid at the local high school who’s also their best fighter. Ryan sets his sights on Jake after he learns that he has gotten into some trouble in the past for fighting at his old school.
Jake is no slouch. He’s a tough kid who takes a lot of the aggression he has built up after his father’s death out on whoever brings up the tragic events of his life. Still, Ryan is at a much higher level than him in terms of overall skill as Jake finds out when he is beaten down during a party he is invited to.
When Jake realizes the only way he is going to stop Ryan’s constant hounding is to fight him in a sanctioned match, he turns to Jean Roqua (Hounsou), the owner of a local gym, who knows a lot about what it takes to be a successful MMA brawler.
And so the story moves along in cliché form as Ryan wears his heart on his sleeve as he trains for a big underground match only a month away. All the while his mother and him bicker over petty things at home and his little brother (the only realistic character in the entire movie played by actor Wyatt Smith) plays tennis and looks up to his big bro, even if he’s always getting his face pounded.
Although Smith and two-time Academy Award nominee Hounsou are solid, everyone else with testosterone running through their bodies is about as believable as a storyline in professional wrestling. Are we to understand that somewhere on this planet there is a high school where every student is interested in mixed martial arts? Without a rational narrative we can only endure so much of the so-so fight scenes. The whole time, I was waiting for another iconic crane kick. Instead, “Never Back Down” taps out before the final round.