Never Back Down Film Review
By Kam Williams
New Karate Kid in Town Learns to "Never Back Down"
After her husband dies in a car accident while driving under the influence, Margot Tyler (Leslie Hope) decides to relocate from Iowa to Orlando, Florida for a fresh start with her two teenage sons. Plus, there's the added incentive of enrolling her younger one, Charlie (Wyatt Smith), in a tennis camp catering to promising prodigies.
Unfortunately, the grieving widow failed to factor in the toll the move might take on her elder boy, Jake (Sean Faris), a sensitive soul who has been beset by unaddressed anger management issues ever since the tragedy. Jake is easily upset about the subject because he was sitting in the passenger seat that fateful night. So, he's hard on himself, always agonizing over why he hadn't intervened. Consequently, all it takes is for some mean kid to say, "You're dead dad was a drunk," for him to fly into a rage the same way the Three Stooges were triggered by the words "Niagara Falls" in their classic comedy skit.
You would expect, then, that with a change of scenery he'd be able to leave all the teasing and his painful memories behind. However, in this age of the internet, a person's past is just a Google search away. So, it isn't long before Jake's story reaches the ears of Ryan McCarthy (Cam Gigandet), the ringleader of a sadistic gang of ne'er-do-wells at his new school who like to fight for fighting's sake.
Next, Ryan's girlfriend, Baja (Amber Heard), feigns a romantic interest in Jake, seductively inviting him to a party, never letting on that he's coming over just to take a bloody beat down. Soon after he arrives, Ryan callously plays the "Your dead dad was a drunk" card, and Jake predictably pops his cork, unaware that his opponent has a black belt in brawling.
A rescue squad arrives in the person of 98-pound weakling Max Cooperman (Evan Peters). He who peels Jake off the floor and directs him to the Combat Club, a mixed martial arts dojo run out of a rundown warehouse by Jean Roqua (Djimon Hounsou), a spiritually-oriented sensei from Senegal. Like a latter-day Mr. Miyagi allows the lad to enroll with the understanding, "No fighting outside of the gym, no matter what" because "people who come here for the wrong reasons never last."
What disciplinarian Mr. Roqua doesn't know is that Jake's ulterior motive is to even the score with Ryan in an upcoming streetfighting tournament. He simultaneously plans to steal the heart of Baja who suddenly has second thoughts about allowing herself to be manipulated by her bully of a boyfriend.
While Never Back Down offers few surprises, at least plot-wise, for anyone already familiar with The Karate Kid (austere training regimen), Fight Club (wanton nihilism), Kung Fu ("Grasshopper"), Rocky (drinking raw eggs) and the rest of the mano-a-mano genre, it does add several 21st Century elements to the mix (like the use of YouTube) which serve to make the familiar formula feel refreshed.
The film is grounded by another powerful performance by two-time Oscar-nominee Djimon Hounsou (In America and Blood Diamond) who again manages to elevate what might have otherwise merely been a mediocre movie by imbuing his every scene with that trademark gravitas. And the rest of the cast members are talented, too, though they tend to be at their best during the highly-stylized, state-of-the-art fight sequences.
The Karate Kid joins the Fight Club and kicks butt!
Excellent (3.5 stars) Rated PG-13 for mature themes, intense violence, profanity, teen partying and premarital sexuality.
Running time: 112 minutes
Studio: Summit Entertainment
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