Summit Entertainment // 2008 // 113 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // August 4th, 2008
A heart-pounding look at the dangerous underground world of mixed martial arts
Have you seen The Karate Kid and Fight Club? Then do yourself a favor and skip Never Back Down. The Karate Kid had more heart, and Fight Club had better fights and more sociopolitical commentary. Yeah, Never Back Down has the sexy new MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) angle going for it, but that's not enough to save this piece of cinematic drivel.
Jake (Sean Faris, Yours, Mine, and Ours) is a young man with a chip on his shoulder. Turns out his dad wrapped himself around a telephone pole while driving drunk, and Jake walked away clean. Talk about heaps of guilt. So, he's moving with his mom and little brother to Orlando, Florida so that his brother can attend a prestigious tennis school. But he can't leave his anger and propensity for fighting behind. When local MMA guru Ryan McCarthy (Cam Gigandet, The O.C.) gets wind of it, he has his girlfriend Baja (Amber Heard, Alpha Dog) lure Jake to a party where Ryan beats the living crap out of him. Naturally, Jake needs a trainer, and finds one in Jean Rocqua (Djimon Hounsou, Blood Diamond), an African with a troubled past and a rule about no fighting outside the gym. Jake must conqure his demons and take responisibilty if he's going to deal with Ryan.
I'll only hit the highlights of why Never Back Down should go directly to the bottom of everyone's "To Watch" pile.
The first thing that any fight film should deliver on is the fights. I've never seen any actual MMA bouts, but if it looks like the stuff featured in Never Back Down, then you can count me out. The philosophy behind the style makes sense (i.e. use what works and mix it up) but makes for anemic bouts in this feature. Without definite styles, fight scenes are mostly two guys punching each other and then grappling on the ground until one of them gets the other in a nasty choke hold. To give you an idea of how lackluster the fights scenes were, I thought the training montages were more interesting than the fights.
Everybody in this film wants to be someone else. Sean Faris looks disturbingly like a young Tom Cruise and tries desperately to channel an ounce of his early charisma. Cam Gigandet, with his over-worked abs and pseudo-psycho demenor wants so badly to be Brad Pitt's Tyler Durden it's almost painful to watch. Do I even need to mention that Djimon Hounsou is doing his best Mr. Miyagi impression? I didn't think so. Finally, Amber Heard's Baja wants to be anybody else, since her character is so flat she could almost be replaced with an inanimate object.
I'm also getting tired of fight-film hypocrisy. We spend 60 minutes hearing about how martial arts should teach you discipline and control, but all that's forgotten when it comes time for the final beat down. Usually I can overlook this problem because most films bother to manufacture a credible reason for the hero to fight despite his discipline. Never Back Down just gives us a vague threat. Also, the film was especially preachy about "controlling the outcome," which made the final fight that much more hollow.
Did I mention the utter and complete lack of believability? Yeah, I know fight clubs exist and all that, but the mix of money, martial arts, and complete lack of real-world consequences got to be a little hard to swallow by the film's half-way point.
Spoilers in the next paragraph
Finally, I'll end my litany with the film's finale. It's a completely unbelievable and a total emotional copout. Jake takes a beating and must immediately train to return the favor. Ryan takes a beating and suddenly he's okay with Jake being the big man on campus? It's totally unbelievable on pretty much every level and demeans whatever emotional gains the film might have made on Jake's behalf.
Although I thought most of the actors were trying desperately to be other people, they delivered their lines with a respectable amount of conviction. I don't see any awards in their futures, but the actors made the (admittedly ridiculous) world of Never Back Down seem normal for them. So, my hat's off for that little achievement.
The film's director, whether to distract from the lackluster story or induce vomiting in the audience, used a number of video effects in Never Back Down, including lots of shaky-cam, open-shutter photography, funky exposures, etc. Although I wouldn't list these in the plus column, this Blu-ray disc does an excellent job showcasing these stylistic flourishes. Detail was high throughout the picture, and colors seemed strong. The audio was likewise strong. In fact, the audio was often the strongest aspect of the fight scenes, giving them an immediacy that the choreography and photography could not.
The disc doesn't skimp on the extras either. Naturally, most of the supplements focus on the film's fighting, including a featurette on MMA that was more interesting than the film. I do give the actors credit for getting into crazy shape. But, we also get some (unnecessary) deleted scenes. There is also a feature where you can watch the film and the director will break down the fight scenes and comment on them while they play out (with the ability to pause and rewind for our benefit). Finally, there's a commentary with director Jeff Wadlow, Sean Faris, and writer Chris Hauty. They are disturbingly proud of the film, but aren't afraid to discuss production details as well.
I suspect in the coming years Never Back Down will become a cult favorite of women and gay men for its preponderance of shirtless men grappling with one another. That's really all I can say to recommend this tired martial arts flick: if you need to see topless, well groomed men feel all over each other (in a totally manly way, of course) for the better part of two hours, then Never Back Down is just the film for you. For everyone else, avoid this film like the plague.
Never Back Down is guilty of failing to deliver the beat-down.
Review content copyright © 2008 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Summit Entertainment
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Audio Commentary
* Deleted Scenes
* "Mix It Up: Bringing MMA to the Big Screen"
* "Blow by Blow: Breaking Down the Fights"
* Alternate Angle Fight Mode