If there were still strings of drive-ins across the country, there’d be a place for this bruising but brainless teen action-melodrama as the bottom half of a double bill no one would watch very closely (though it would need to be severely trimmed from its unconscionably long 106-minute running-time—which wouldn’t be difficult, as much of it is devoted to what amount to musical montages of training sessions with thumping background scores). But the drive-in is a thing of the past, alas, as are double features, and about the only place left for a picture like “Never Back Down” is on Spike-TV, along with previous classics of the genre like the “No Retreat, No Surrender” and “Best of the Best” series.
Insofar as plot is concerned (to use the term loosely), the movie—an obvious effort to capitalize on the current popularity of boxing-with-kickboxing-and-wrestling bouts—could just as well have been titled “The Mixed Martial Arts Kid,” if it weren’t for the fact that Sean Faris, the Tom Cruise lookalike—down to the same vacant smile and wooden demeanor—who plays supposed highschooler Jake Tyler, looks way too old to be called a kid (or play a highschooler). Jake, an Iowa teen guilt-ridden over the death of his father, whom he didn’t stop from driving drunk, moves with his mom (Leslie Hope) and younger brother (Wyatt Smith) to Orlando so his bro can take advantage of a tennis scholarship. But because of You-Tube, Jake’s reputation comes with him—he was caught on film in a notorious brawl on the football field—and the local champ in underground fight contests, arrogant Ryan McCarthy (Cam Gigandet), wants to take him on pronto and show everybody who’s boss. So Ryan has his blonde bombshell of a girlfriend, Baja (!) (Amber Heard), entice Jake to a party where he goads the poor guy—via references to his father, sure to set him off—into a quick beating.
Luckily Jake’s already found an obligatory goofy sidekick named Max (Evan Peters), a wannabe fighter himself, who introduces his new pal to the Mr. Miyagi character, towering Jean Roqua (Djimon Hounsou), who runs a gym in which Jake enrolls. It turns out that Roqua has a guilt complex, too—he left Senegal after failing to prevent the murder of his brother, poisoning his relationship with his father—and he teaches Jake the skills he needs, though he doesn’t want the youngster to fight out of anger. As if this weren’t routine enough, Jake and Baja become an item when she regrets her role in Ryan’s nastiness and breaks up with him, leading Ryan to lure Jake into another fight by—you got it—thrashing Max. It all ends in a rib-cracking melee in a parking lot (shades of “Step Up 2 the Street,” though not in the rain), in which—of course—our boy snatches victory the jaws of defeat.
This is all pure formula, of course, and as far as that goes it’s actually superior, from a technical perspective, to the direct-to-DVD stuff that usually fills the genre, although there are entirely too many of those “Rocky”-syle training montages and the fight sequences (shot by Lukas Ettlin and edited by Victor Du Bois and Debra Winstead) go in for swooning camerawork and whiplash cuts that leave them a blur. (The animated CSI-style “special effects” to show ribs breaking in the final bouts are a mistake, too.) And though the cast can’t do much to elevate the trite material, some of them—Hounsou, Hope, tyke Smith, even the blank but handsome Faris—are better than the norm in movies of this ilk. (On the other hand, Heard is flummoxed by a part that requires her on the one hand to play a good girl but soon has her wrestling around with Jake on his bedroom floor after trying on his sparring gloves and saying—in what has to be the movie’s worst line among many bad ones—“Oh, they’re still sweaty!” And who could play a coed named Baja, anyway? Peters’ nerdy Max and Gigandet’s smirking Ryan—who, of course, turns out to have daddy issues too—aren’t much better.)
But what really sinks “Never Back Down” is the attempt to add some depth to what’s just an old-fashioned sock-and-rock-‘em story with dime-store psychological cliches about guilt, self-restraint, determination and redemption. The messages they convey are completely muddled in the end, anyway—ultimately all you take from the picture is the old saw that “a guy’s gotta do what he’s gotta do”—but even worse is that they too often slow things to a crawl while we have to listen to another impassioned speech or sit through one more flashback to Jake and his dead dad (a character played—in a sure sign of desperation—by one of the producers). Get rid of that rubbish and lop off a training montage or two, and you might have a dumb but effective slice of mixed martial-arts mayhem that would fit nicely into Spike’s two-hour program slots.
In its current overlong, teach-me-a-lesson form, though, “Never Back Down” is like a match that delivers a few good punches but drags on to a dull and predictable end.