Judge Brendan Babish and mixed martial arts go together about as well as peanut butter and carbolic acid.
"Never give up, never back down!"
Attempting to cash in on the burgeoning mixed martial arts craze, Summit Entertainment brings you Never Back Down, a film about American teenagers who tirelessly devote themselves to inflicting pain on others in hand-to-hand combat.
Facts of the Case
Okay, let's get this out of the way early on: Never Back Down is Karate Kid: Mixed Martial Arts Edition. Just about every single review of the movie has to reference Karate Kid, because the similarities are inescapable: troubled teenager Jake (Sean Faris, Reunion) moves with his single mother to a new town where he gets picked on by bullies who have been trained in the martial arts. In response, fish-out-of-water teen trains with inscrutable foreigner Jean Roqua (Djimon Hounsou, Amistad) in preparation for a showdown with head bully Ryan (played by the chiseled Cam Gigandet), a.k.a. the Zabka.
Of course, there is more than pride on the line; there's also a leggy blonde. For some reason, Baja (Amber Heard, Hidden Palms) finds herself torn between Ryan, the misogynistic sadomasochist, and Jake, who is earnest and respectful, but doesn't quite measure up in the enjoys-beating-innocent-classmates-to-an-inch-of-their-life department.
There are many reasons to dismiss Never Back Down as a vapid derivative of a 1980s teen classic. Even the film's director, Jeff Wadlow, seems to think the film's best asset is the extreme violence of the fight scenes. In his video intro to the "Extended Beat Down Edition" of his movie, he ebulliently details how he edited in additional violence to the director's cut—including extra bone crunching and cries of pain to the soundtrack. There was no mention made of additional scenes detailing the romance between Jake and Baja or perhaps some sort of explanation of Ryan's murderous hatred of Jake. (Yeah, the film does contain a scene of Ryan getting emasculated by his father, but that hardly explains his sociopathic bloodlust.)
While Never Back Down is extremely violent—think Fight Club with a younger, less-talented cast—the violence is, for the most part, tedious. This is largely because the leads are not compelling: Jake is a Tom Cruise doppelganger without the charm, and Baja is a lifeless romantic interest. The one exception to this is Ryan; though he is a one-note villain, basically a teenage vortex of pure evil, he still manages to be a compelling foil. Like the great Zabka (Billy Zabka, who played head bully in Karate Kid, Just One of the Guys, and Back to School), Ryan is the bully you love to hate.
But Ryan really is more of a Zabka squared. Whereas the original Zabka certainly had hated in his heart, Ryan is a complete sociopath. With his permanent smirk, trendy tattoo, and chiseled physique, combined with an orgasmic pleasure in inflicting pain on others, Ryan makes the film moderately compelling. When Ryan beats on Jake you are not interested because you care about Jake, but only because you want someone to smack that grin off Ryan's face. When Jake eventually does beat on Ryan you are not so much happy to see Jake triumph, but instead enjoying Ryan's comeuppance.
In this sense, Cam Gigandet steals the film from his castmates, though this truly is a case of petty theft. In fact, Gigandet plays Ryan with such élan that I am convinced he must be an SOB of the highest order in real life.
Of course, a good villain can take a film so far. The bottom line is that Never Back Down is overly sentimental and simplistic and adds nothing to the genre. It follows the formula of Karate Kid in every respect except for instilling any interest whatsoever in the protagonist. Yes, there are a few scattered moments of excitement, but the film ultimately fails to resonate in any meaningful way.
Never Back Down is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2:40:1. The colors of the bright and vacuous Orlando area—where the film was shot—are sharp and vivid. The soundtrack is also impressive, with a bass-pounding score heavy on contemporary rock and loads of cracked bones and anguished cries that come in crystal clear.
The "Extended Beat Down Edition" contains far more extras than one would expect from a teenage fight movie with a middling box-office return. The audio commentary has three participants—Wadlow, Faris, and writer Chris Hauty. With three individuals commenting, there are few awkward pauses, but much of the substance of their remarks has to do with production minutiae, including detailed breakdowns of the fight scenes. There are four featurettes involving the mixed martial arts action in the film. The most interesting is "Blow By Blow," in which Wadlow and his production staff break down the fights frame by frame. "Mix It Up," "The Thrill of the Fight," and "Star Power" all provide further detail on mixed martial arts, particularly how the actors trained and worked out for these demanding roles. And then there are loads of deleted scenes, though there was nothing here that would have provided the film any additional emotional resonance.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I should note that, though the violence in the film does little to augment the story, the fight scenes are expertly choreographed, and these guys really do look like they are pounding on each other. Of course, the liberal use of blood aids in the realism. Still, I am sure it isn't easy to stage an elaborate mixed martial arts fight, and much credit should go to Wadlow and his crew for pulling it off.
Never Back Down is hardly an embarrassing teen drama, but it is a disposable one. The film takes the Karate Kid template and adds in more muscles, more blood, and a louder soundtrack, yet all those additions has an oddly underwhelming cumulative effect.
Guilty of remaking a 1980s classic and replacing its emotional core with a shattered ribcage.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Summit Entertainment
• Deleted Scenes
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