A violent spectacle sport film of the male persuasion, Never Back Down blends faux-relatable sensitivity with extreme violence, resulting a badly paced formula film. This one’s all about the boys. Edited like a music video (lots, lots of montage), Never Back Down has a heart in there somewhere but it’s buried under so many layers of dumbness it’s difficult to get emotionally involved in the film. The plot concerns an angry young man named Jake Tyler (Sean Faris), who has moved to Orlando, Florida from Iowa when the film begins.
In the first 10 minutes Jake is established as walking cornhusk with a precarious emotional trigger. When he is taunted on the field about his alcoholic father, recently killed in a car accident, Jake lashes out violently. He’s just mad at the world, trying desperately to restrain his tendency towards aggression while everything around him is begging to be ripped apart. Matters aren’t helped when Jake discovers that everyone at his new high school knows of his swinging skills thanks to a video posted on the Internet. As it turns out, this Orlando high school has an uncanny preoccupation with unsanctioned brawling.
Fighting, specifically Mixed Martial Arts, is an underground phenomenon here and students gather regularly at parties to watch men, women, and, yes, ex-couples go at each other in a ring of onlookers. Jake is sucked into this world by two cookie cutter characters: new friend Max Cooperman (Evan Peters), a Ron Weasley-goes-skating AV nerd with a modicum of coolness, and button nosed vanilla pop Baja Miller (Amber Heard). After the comely Baja invites Jake to a party, he meets her erstwhile boyfriend, the cruel, bronzed Ryan (Cam Gigandet), de facto champion of the fighting scene.
Jake quickly surmises that the real reason he was invited to the party was to engage in a bloody fight with Ryan. Despite initial hesitations, Jake bites when he hears the familiar jeer; degrading knock out ensues. Through Cooperman, Jake sets into motion the wheels of his revenge by training under Brazilian John Roqua (Djimon Hounsou), a former Mixed Martial Arts fighter who has given up the sport for a secret reason. With a promise of abstaining from fighting outside class, but with the cast-iron goal of duly humiliating Ryan at the upcoming championship beat down, Jake works tirelessly with Roqua while enduring more teasing and egging on at school.
The film plods on, following the familiar hero's journey trajectory, complete with Homeric references for AP Lit points. Jake gets his chance to cry, to shine, to disappoint his mentor, to redeem himself, to finally defeat his demons and to get the girl. A reiteration of this same old story is never unwelcome, but Never Back Down is so thoroughly genre that even the twists are predictable. The performances are as stiff as the dialogue. Hounsou, narrowly escaping “Magical Negro” categorization by shades of a troubled past, is reliably good but his job is mostly to act as a stand in for Jake’s absent father. Yawn.
The one element that could have set the film apart, the spotlight on the Mixed Martial Arts fighting style, gets an unexplained short shrift. According to the press kit, MMA is a phenomenon that’s sweeping the country. I wouldn’t have known this from merely watching the film. Even with this lack of clarity, Never Back Down does deliver on a promise of a lot of gory action. The violence is lovingly rendered here, with ribbons of spit and blood flying out across the screen in slow-mo every time the hero gets punched in the face.
In spite of its declarative title, Never Back Down doesn’t come down on either side of the violence dilemma. Its ultimate message is terminally mixed: Violence is bad except when you just have to teach the antagonist a lesson and the point must be driven home by a humiliating beat down captured for posterity on a thousand iPhones. And inner turmoil! Don’t forget that particularly cherished hallmark of the dick flick. There’s really a lot of muddled commentary to be found here. Explorations of class structure and bored teenage anomie are attempted in Never Back Down, but who wants their social critique served with a garnish of male anguish? You do? Okay, well you’ll like the film then.