Never Back Down
Directed by Jeff Wadlow. Starring Sean Faris, Djimon Hounsou, Cam Gigandet, Amber Heard, Evan Peters, Leslie Hope. (2008, PG-13, 106 min.)
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., March 21, 2008
The mixed martial arts flick Never Back Down borrows from other movies almost shamelessly – it's The Karate Kid meets Fight Club by way of Abercrombie & Fitch. (And maybe a little Rocky thrown in for good measure.) Jake (Faris), a hot-headed hottie with a big temper, finds himself the new kid in town when his family moves from corn-fed Iowa to the suburban hell of southern Florida, where his inexplicable tan is the only thing that initially fits in. When a YouTube clip of his fists of fury makes the rounds of his high school, however, Jake suddenly becomes the new badass in town. That is, until he is publicly humiliated by his new nemesis, Ryan (Gigandet), the school's reigning prince of extreme sports who also happens to be the boyfriend of the girl (Heard) who flirts with Jake in English class. Motivated by revenge, Jake seeks to hone his raw talent for violent behavior by training with a Senegalese-born coach (Hounsou), a man of few words who teaches his new student that throwing a punch is as much a mental act as it is a physical one. Of course, there's the final showdown between the underdog and his tormentor, which is ultimately just another excuse for the two of them to once again strip down to their gym shorts and show off their rock-hard physiques. (The eye candy in this movie never ends if you're a young female or a gay male.) Though its script leaves no cliché unturned, Never Back Down is a notch above the norm in the genre, mainly due to director Wadlow's ability to keep everything on track. While the workout montages of Jake sweating and grunting come close to derailing the movie, Never Back Down is never an unpleasant experience, keeping your interest intact in spite of the cheesy storyline. Some of the credit must also go to Faris in the role of the young hero (he's too clean-cut to be considered an antihero). While the character of Jake isn't an emotionally taxing one, Faris has his moments, especially in a low-key scene in which he attempts to explain why his character is full of rage. It's telling that the tear that rolls down his cheek is a real one, rather than one of those fake glycerin ones that you see so often in films. And Faris' uncanny resemblance to a younger (and taller) Tom Cruise will have you doing a double take. He has the hair, the teeth, even the moles – is it possible that they're cloning movie stars now? Odder things have happened in the business they call show.