Jake Tyler (Sean Faris) is a promising high school football player, or he was until he suffered a personal tragedy recently and lost his father in a car crash. With that in mind, his harassed mother (Leslie Hope) has decided to up sticks and take him and his brother to Florida, Orlando to be exact, to start their lives over. This is just as well, for the issues that are forcing them apart are leading to Jake fighting in school, though on his first day in the new place he is surprised to catch sight of a couple of kids laying into one another and rushes over to rescue the loser - then is even more surprised when he is shrugged off and the fight continues. Is this the culture of this place?
Will Jake ever fit in? If he has a propensity for violence, then yes, he probably will, but Never Back Down was no Fight Club clone with a teenage setting, it was, as just about everyone noticed and pointed out, a rip-off of eighties martial arts hit The Karate Kid, down to pretty much every plot point slavishly recreated in order. How could they get away with this rampant copying? There was one important difference, and it was all about that combat, for in the Ralph Macchio epic the fighting was watered down from your average Sonny Chiba brawl to a more family friendly, well-organised battle on the mat, whereas here they dedicated themselves to a grittier form of violence.
Rest assured, this remained fairy tale stuff, just your average high school sporting endeavour flick where the underdog made good in the end, as you could have predicted from minute one, but the exchange from a Hollywood style of karate to a more muscular, sweaty mixed martial arts grapple (no flying crane kick here) made a significant difference. Nobody watched a movie like this hoping for a cast iron plot laden with ingenious twists and major revelations, and that was not what was on offer in director Jeff Wadlow's efforts, it was largely about the way Jake learned the best way to gain his self-respect by honing to perfection his ability to beat seven shades of shit out of his opponents.
But who was his Mister Miyagi? Step forward Djimon Hounsou, the African star who had carved out a niche as an ex-model taking supporting roles that would often overshadow the leads, and he certainly looked buff enough to take on all comers had he been the focus of the plot. You may wish that had been the case, for his Jean Roqua character was a lot more interesting than Jake's rote daddy issues (and mommy issues, for that matter), but he was mostly present to dispense wisdom, not "wax on, wax off" but more along the lines of learning to control your breathing in a fight since that's what most brawlers don't realise, they will exhaust themselves if they don't and ultimately lose a very short altercation. This was assuming nobody drew a weapon, but that didn't cross anyone's mind here.
In the Elisabeth Shue part was Amber Heard as Baja, who is the girlfriend of the assholian bad guy Ryan (Cam Gigandet), a rich kid who holds massive parties at his parents' mansion purely so he can stage his fights which he always wins because he's just that good, 'kay? Ryan taunts Jake in a way only a real nasty piece of work can, all in the service of encouraging the audience to want to see him get his ass kicked by our hero (who is sensitive because he's good at English classes), but quelle horreur, every time Jake stands up to him the villain beats him down, either verbally or physically: either way, it's mightily humiliating. As this trundled along the railway lines to its destination and no upheaval in the traditions of narrative, you had to admit there was something admirable in the manner it was committed to staging its fisticuffs with such integrity; you can imagine a genuine MMA competitor getting along with Never Back Down very well. That was the main selling point, and it was enough, slick, hollow, but professional enough to make it valued among the action fans. Music by Michael Wandmacher.