For all of the traditional complaints lodged against film critics -- too pointy-headed, too snooty, unable to enjoy a movie on the level of the simple pleasures it may present -- I worry that what I'm about to say may harm my standing in the field; namely, I liked Never Back Down. No, it's not The Battle of Algiers or Jules et Jim; it's a movie where good-looking 20-somethings playing good-looking teens offer American moviegoers the exciting prospect of Mixed Martial Arts action without the daunting possibility they might have to read subtitles. It's far below the fights-and-fury quality of Donnie Yen's Flash Point, another MMA action flick opening in limited release as Never Back Down splashes up on movie screens across America. And yet, Never Back Down seems to know what it is, and executes the rote and required moments in a film like this -- a template set by movies like The Karate Kid and Rocky and a dozen others -- with a certain amount of style and exuberance. Never Back Down revolves around good-looking people beating the holy hell out of each other; it doesn't pretend to be much more than that, and while the pleasures it offers are modest, it nonetheless delivers them.
Jake Tyler (Sean Faris) is a football hero coping with his dad's drunk driving death; his little brother Charlie (Wyatt Smith) has the tennis skills to go to the next level in the sport, so the Tyler family uproots from Iowa and heads to Orlando, Florida, where Charlie can study and mom (Leslie Hope) can support Charlie's efforts and everyone can get a little distance from what's happened. But while Jake's trying to fit in at school, he discovers that his new social circle is more of a boxing ring, as the cool kids have all gone kick-crazy for Mixed Martial Arts. Jake catches the eye of popular girl Baja (Amber Heard) ... and top dog Ryan McCarthy (Cam Gigandet), who swiftly taunts Jake into fighting him and proceeds to hand Jake his ass.
Max (Evan Peters), Jake's new goofy pal (Max comes across as a mix of Shaggy from Scooby-Doo and Jack White) notes that Jake has the kind of heart you can't fake and the sort of skills that need improvement, and he introduces Jake to MMA coach and legend Jean Roqua (Djimon Honsou). Jake's eager to learn, but keeping Roqua's one rule -- "No fighting outside the gym"-- is going to be a little trickier, especially with Ryan and his cronies taunting, testing and tempting Jake's newfound sense of purpose. ...
And we are building up to a big fight between the two, of course; we know that, and it's what we're there for. Director Jeff Wadlow actually seems to care about what he's doing, and puts unexpected shots and unexpected character moments throughout the film, even if the film's style has the clammy air of someone who's trying too hard. Within the first 10 minutes of Never Back Down, we get camera shots from within a football helmet, from within a packing box and from within the water of a pool; I found myself hoping sincerely, based on this trend, that there wouldn't be a sex scene. But while it's easy to mock Wadlow's excesses, it's also easy to praise his competencies; he tries to give scenes a little something extra, a little something more. Yes, the bone-breaking action is there -- but Jake's relationship with his little brother Charlie, for example, is nicely crafted, human and sincere. Or, in the scene where Hope goes to Honsou's gym to see where her son's been spending so much time, she has one simple request: "Make sure he keeps all his teeth; my dental plan doesn't kick in for another six months."
Screenwriter Chris Hauty (whose sole previous credit on IMDB is, interestingly enough, Homeward Bound II: Lost in San Francisco) deserves some credit for putting a few nice moments in Never Back Down's traditional trouble-training-triumph plot; Ryan may have the eye of the tiger, but he manages to give us a few knowing winks, too. As Honsou passes on some warrior-wisdom, Faris asks him "Is that it?" "Is that what?" "Your 'Grasshopper ..." speech. ..." Or there's Faris's meeting with Heard: "Baja -- like California?" "Like 'My parents smoked too much weed.'" And while much of Never Back Down is cliché -- mentioning Jake's dad to him induces the same reaction as when you call Marty McFly 'Chicken' -- it never slouches or slumps in its march from plot point to plot point, from initial challenge to final countdown.
The actors are fine, as well; Faris has the cocky charm of a young Tom Cruise, but with a nice note of self-deprecation that makes it easy to like him. Heard (excellent in the long-delayed All The Boys Love Mandy Lane) is pleasant enough to watch as she bares her soul and her midriff, and Gigandet plays Ryan as a warrior-prince thug with zero body fat and even fewer scruples. Peters fulfills his sidekick role with left-field good humor, and Honsou -- far from his earlier prestige pics like Gladiator and Amistad -- hits the right notes as a wounded warrior father figure.
And there are egregiously cliché moments in Never Back Down, certainly; we know Gigandet will beat up someone close to Faris to make him break Honsou's number one rule, and he does. There's an entire scene with Faris and Heard seemingly shot solely to demonstrate that Heard's cleavage has x, y, and z axes; the circles of bystanders surrounding every fight are composed of improbably handsome and skin-baring youths. But when Faris heads for the climactic battle -- the Kanye West/Daft Punk collaboration "Stronger" pounding on the soundtrack, with its Nietzche-at-the-nightclub verse "That which don't kill me/can only make me stronger ..." -- well, dear reader, I was pleasantly and properly enthused about the prospect of the upcoming final fight. Never Back Down is flashy, flimsy and disposable, but it's made with craft and care, and it delivers exactly what you knew you were going to get when you made the decision to buy the ticket.