This is a REVIEW of the Extended, Unrated Cut That Was Not Seen in Theaters.
NEVER BACK DOWN is a teen-action-martial arts drama that has all the ingredients to entertain a VERY specific audience. The film isn’t going to win awards for its story, but then again, what martial arts film ever had? The film has a very formulaic and routine storyline but what caught my notice are its action sequences. Please note that this is a review of the film’s “Beat Down” edition that supposedly contains more punches and kicks, more blood and graphic violence.
A young man with an ill temper named Jake Tyler (Sean Faris) has been trying to keep his life together with his mother and younger brother after his father‘s death. They move to another town from Iowa so his brother can pursue a tennis scholarship. Once in school, he gets baited by a pretty girl, Baja (Amber Heard), to a party that ended up with Jake getting his head kicked in by the resident “Beat Down” champ Ryan McCarthy (Cam Gigandet). Frustrated, Jake enlists Max’s (Evan Peters) aid to introduce him to a master of mixed martial arts named Jean Roqua (Djimon Hounsou, Gladiator) with revenge on his mind. After training for sometime in the Dojo, Jake realizes more things about family, discipline and friendship; and more importantly controlling his anger. Jake isn’t interested in fighting anymore. However, now that he’s been training under Roqua, McCarthy is even more eager to fight Jake…
The film has all the elements we can relate to; family issues, bullying at school, forgiving oneself and atonement. At first impression, I thought it was just going to be a bad rethread of “The Karate Kid” with just more action and violence. Well, it actually is a rehash if you think about it in regards to its plot but the film can be entertaining. The film actually explores the issues that often plague martial artists themselves and explores the relationship between Sensei and apprentice. Jake and Jean developed a common denominator to each other which is their failings in their family. McCarthy is a martial artist without discipline and as a result becomes a brash, arrogant fighter.
The direction by Jeff Wadlow knew what his goals were, it isn’t pretentious but sets its eyes to provide popcorn entertainment. While the film does have a very unoriginal premise and frankly, those elements have almost been done to death; Wadlow manages to keep things small but focused. The pacing is quite competent enough to keep the viewer interested and never becomes too ambitious or pretentious by adding excess “fat” to the film’s simple plot. There are some morality issues and quite a lot of preaching about the necessities of forgiving oneself. What helps the film along is that the relationship between Roqua and Jake were convincing enough and I was happy it took center stage rather than the sappy blossoming “teen love” between Jake and Baja. Just when does a Sensei know when his student has become the best he can be? When the sensei begins learning from his apprentice.
Now the film’s main draw would have to be its fight sequences. For a Hollywood flick, I thought it was decently executed. Of course, the fights can never compare to the fight sequences choreographed by the legendary Yuen Woo-Ping or the best of Corey Yuen; but for the most part it was smooth enough to generate some intensity and pain in the proceedings. There is quite a bit of graphic violence in this dvd edition that stays within the realm of mixed martial arts. I credit the director that the managed to keep the scenes that make Faris and Gigandet look good and edit out the scenes that make them look bad. The fights were decent, and I thought the encounters were hard-hitting enough for what its worth. Just don’t expect the fights to be in the same caliber as Asia’s best martial arts action sequences.
Now, the film does have its share of huge problems. The performance by the supporting cast does seem a little too “wooden” at times. Max provides some of the film’s ’comic relief’ but you can see from miles away that he was a simple plot device to set up the film’s final climax. Amber Heard who plays Baja is pretty, sexy and attractive but I think she had so little to work with, so I can’t really criticize her acting that much. Well, she acted like a girl star-struck by the new boy in town and she does do that. Jake’s Mom and little brother had limited screen time but they gave Jake more character development than what was provided by visuals alone.
Overall, I thought “Never Back Down” is an entertaining enough experience. It does play its cards well enough and it stayed focused on its main premise. Sure, its premise is pretty simple and very unoriginal; the stereotypical love triangle definitely got in the way but I guess there has to be something for everyone. Consider it a “Karate Kid” remake that focuses more on its action sequences rather than the drama. The film is pretty routine with characters that were mere caricatures; but it can a worthwhile watch for action junkies with its abundance of kicks and punches to satisfy that “fix”. Nothing special and definitely forgettable, but also better than most martial arts movies from Hollyood--"Surf Ninjas" anyone?
RENTAL But Can be Satisfying to Action Junkies. [2 ½ Out of 5 Stars]
Disclaimer: I only saw the middle third of this movie. While my wife was watching American Idol, I was flipping around on another TV and came across this movie. I figure I watched about a third of the movie before switching the channel. Despite the limited view, I was struck by the amount of the plot that was taken from the Karate Kid and updated for the Millennial Generation. First the similarities: New kid in town, picked on by bully Bully … more