, 110 min, 2008
Director: Jeff Wadlow
Writer: Chris Hauty (written by)
Stars: Sean Faris, Djimon Hounsou, Amber Heard
The definition of “guilty pleasure” is something that you enjoy despite knowing better. Some part of your inner defenses break down and you actually like something that you know you shouldn’t. Keep this in mind when I tell you that Never Back Down is a teen action-movie retread that somehow is more entertaining and better-made than we expect – or deserve.
Rebellious young upstart Jake Tyler (Sean Faris, who often looks like a young Tom Cruise) moves from Iowa to Florida after a fight during his high school football game gets him expelled from school. His mom (Leslie Hope, formerly of TV’s 24) just wants him to stay out of trouble, and for his young brother (Wyatt Smith) to grow up decently.
Once he’s the new kid in town, Jake befriends YouTube geek extraordinaire Max Cooperman (Evan Peters) and soon he is invited to a party which, it turns out, is just an excuse for an underground mixed-martial-arts club of sorts that is operated by posh troublemaker Ryan McCarthy (Cam Gigandet, who often looks like a Satanic Paul Walker – even when he’s smiling). Ryan, of course, is dating the pretty-looking nice girl who Jake is almost immediately intrigued by. That would be the fascinatingly-named Baja Miller (Amber Heard, who looks quite a bit like Scarlett Johannsson; this cast is a virtual Who’s That of up-and-coming young talent).
When Ryan doesn’t want to play nice, and has his sights set on Jake – who wants to stay out of trouble – Jake must befriend the gym-operating old veteran Jean Roqua (Djimon Hounsou, in his – and Morgan Freeman’s – token Black Guy Helping Whity role). Invariably, this will turn into a showdown between the young rebel who wants to walk the straight and narrow, and his nefarious adversary, who just wants to tarnish the Good Guy’s golden image.
If this all sounds like a cross between Fight Club and The Karate Kid – it is. Credit must go where due, however, and director Jeff Wadlow (Cry_Wolf) does his best to utilize style, without ever letting it take over for substance – the film has an occasionally hyperactive camera, razor-sharp editing and a rocking soundtrack. The screenplay, by Chris Hauty (Homeward Bound II: Lost in San Francisco!), is also smarter than it needs to be.
Sure, the characters are more-or-less cardboard caricatures who sometimes speak in violent one-liners, but there’s also just the tiniest bit of (admittedly, rather shallow) depth here – from the back stories of the characters to how the plot manages to end in a final showdown without ever feeling necessarily beholden to that turnout. The film may be somewhat of a guilty pleasure, but not quite enough to recommend. Still, the results are surprisingly…fun.