Never Back Down

2008, Movie, PG-13, 113 mins


This unlikely hybrid of THE KARATE KID (1984) and FIGHT CLUB (1999) is formulaic and derivative, but sufficiently well made to work as both teen-angst melodrama and bone-rattling brawl picture.

Newly widowed Margot Tyler (Leslie Hope) moves her sons, 17-year-old Jake Tyler (Sean Faris, who bears an occasionally distracting resemblance to Tom Cruise) and 10-year-old Charlie (Wyatt Smith), from Iowa to Orlando, Florida, in hopes that they can all make a fresh start. Tennis prodigy Charlie can train at a prestigious sports center, and Jake, a talented football player, will no longer be the object of small-town scrutiny: No one in Orlando will know that his alcoholic dad (David Zelon) died in a car crash with Jake in the passenger seat. Freedom from taunts –- both real and imagined -- might stop him from getting into fights and scrapes with the law: Jake's last game back home ended in a spectacular on-field brawl. Dropped into a new school mid-semester, Jake does his best to melt into the background; all he wants is to be left alone with his guilt and seething anger. But viral video of the football fight puts him on the radar of smirking sadist Ryan McCarthy (Cam Gigandet, of TV's The O.C.): Ryan and his jaded, obscenely wealthy friends get their kicks competing in brutal underground fights, and they're always looking for fresh meat. Ryan uses his girlfriend, Baja (Amber Heard), to rope Jake in, and "natural born brawler" though Jake may be, his first bout with Ryan ends in a humiliating beatdown. So natural born sidekick/victim Max (Evan Peters) introduces him to mixed-martial-arts master Jean Roqua (Djimon Hounsou), who runs the 365 Combat Club. Rebellious Jake instinctively resists Roqua's mind-body approach to martial-arts training: "Was that the grasshopper speech?" he asks sarcastically after Roqua's first lesson in mental discipline. But he needs Roqua more than Roqua needs him, and embarks on the path leading to the inevitable mano a mano with his nemesis.

Chris Hauty's screenplay doesn't miss a cliche, and the many scenes of buff, bare-chested boys with their legs locked around each other's necks will delight some viewers and make others snicker uncomfortably. But Hauty gives his stock characters some shading and most of the cast rise to the opportunity, which means it's possible to care about them –- the brief montage of an exhausted Margot cleaning and doing laundry, for example, makes her something more that the mom who just doesn't get it. Even Gigandet gets a touch of backstory, but most of what you need to know about Ryan is written on his face -- the fact that he looks so much like Brad Pitt's Tyler Durden can't be a coincidence. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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