For those not up on their hand-to-hand combat sports, mixed martial arts is the hot new trend, but it’s not exactly new. Early forms of the art date back at least to the late 19th century and it enjoyed some popularity in the late 1960s and early 70s with the emergence of Bruce Lee and his practice of blending various martial art styles. In recent years, however, MMA has changed from its brutal anything-goes roots to a kinder, gentler sport with safety rules and far fewer fatalities.
Since the implementation of these changes, the sport has grown swiftly, to the point of setting pay-per-view records, so it was just a matter of time until modern MMA made its big screen debut.
Set in Orlando, Florida Never Back Down—a title so generic it could have been plucked from the Jean-Claude Van Damme reject pile—sees new-kid-in-town kid Jake Tyler (Life As We Know It’s and Tom Cruise look-a-like Sean Faris) become a trouble magnet. After taking a beating from bully Ryan “The Beat Down King” MacDonald (Cam Gigandet) Jake is convinced to join an underground fight club where he will learn the art of mixed martial arts from mentor and coach Jean Roqua (Blood Diamond’s Djimon Hounsou). Whether Jake uses his newfound skills in the ring to become a better person, or simply to eek out revenge on his tormentor Ryan is at the crux of the plot.
Story wise its one part Karate Kid mixed with two parts Save the Last Dance. Action wise its Fight Club lite, a teen friendly genre film that has just enough blood and guts to keep the boys in the crowd interested, but not enough to earn the deadly R rating.
The look of the movie is pure 1990s music video, with montages galore, loads of slo mo and even some dry ice effects. It’s appropriate that Never Back Down resembles a music clip because it has as much insight to teen angst as a Weird Al Yankovich video. Don’t let the pumped-up production value or the abundance of pretty people fool you, this is drive-in teen exploitation fare with a story we’ve seen many times before.
Never Back Down is simply an overwrought teen genre picture that flies along when it sticks to the teen gladiator action, but gets very silly when it attempts to adds layers of character or plot.