It’s February and everything sucks right now, so it’s time to unwind with February Fisticuffs – a punchy look at some of the best, worst and most average boxing, kung fu and martial arts movies.
A martial arts movie shoved through a teen flick filter, Never Back Down is not that bad. It’s not that good, either. The 2008 picture from director Jeff Wadlow blends several currents of adolescent life, from the ever-present array of cameras to pervasive Internet culture to the flurry of activity that rowdy youths will engage in for a hit of that sweet popularity.
The activity at the core of said flurry could really be anything, but in the case of Wadlow’s movie it’s mixed martial arts. In another movie, MMA would’ve been replaced by music or dance or competitive knitting – whatever the kids are into these days.
Sean Faris stars as Jake Tyler, a football star who moves from Iowa to Florida with his mother (Leslie Hope) and younger brother (Wyatt Smith). Jake wants to start over, but he’s already making waves at school because of a punchy incident posted on the Internet. This causes Jake to catch the eye of Ryan McCarthy (Cam Gigandet).
McCarthy is the school’s reigning MMA champion because he’s beat the crap out of everyone else. He wants a piece of Jake and tasks his girlfriend Baja (Amber Heard) to help goad the guy into fighting. Jake finds himself in a web of MMA. He receives lessons from Jean Roqua (Djimon Hounsou), plus some stuff happens with the girl.
Jake also makes friends with Max Cooperman (Evan Peters). He’s in the beginner’s class at Roqua’s gym and Jake gets to fly right past him because he’s more adamant or something. That Max doesn’t feel the slightest tinge of jealousy is rather remarkable.
Jake also has issues, what with his father killed in a drunk driving accident. Jake could’ve taken the keys from his pops ahead of the accident, but he “backed down.” This forms a message in his head that he applies to literally every situation he comes across.
Faris cuts a Tom Cruise-like figure across Never Back Down and the movie has ripples of All the Right Moves, except there’s no discussion of dead-end towns. Instead, Never Back Down revels in the concussed vanity of its combat and treats the fighting like it’s the solution to all the daddy issues that ail the main characters.
And in a way, it’s hard to argue with the results. Every problem has a “solution” in fisticuffs (for the most part) and even Jake’s romantic issues with Baja are remedied by simple obstinacy. There’s no beauty in the martial arts, apart from what Hounsou displays.
Wadlow’s Never Back Down is the stuff of jumpy YouTube videos, complete with a blundering soundtrack packed with Papa Roach and Trapt and Breaking Benjamin because why not. The fight sequences don’t land with any creativity because Lukas Ettlin’s lens is more interested in constant motion than evident observation.
But somehow, Never Back Down works as an exercise in effort. Wadlow’s movie is such a try-hard slab of drivel that it registers an awful lot of amusement and that counts for something. Nevermind that it already feels remarkably dated. Nevermind that the martial arts scenes are dull. Nevermind that the actors are about 10 years older than their characters. And, of course, never…back down.