Mixed martial arts has become of the new fads of the millennium. After the success of the independent film REDBELT, and to appeal to teen audiences, this film is your basic story mixed in with the new MMA fad. While the first time, it may seem yech, a second or third viewing may possibly make this a decent film.
Jake Tyler is a high school student with anger issues. Moving to Orlando, Florida for his younger brother Charlie, who is on a tennis scholarship, Jake learns that his new school is more than what he expected. A video of Jake fighting at a football game before his move catches the attention of local rich boy Ryan McCarthy. McCarthy is also a mixed martial arts fighter who uses his girlfriend Baja to invite Jake to a party. At the party, what starts out as a possible new friendship quickly becomes a rivalry when McCarthy challenges Jake to fight. While Jake attempts to use his boxing skills, Ryan’s MMA proves too much for the angst-ridden teen.
With help of new friend Max, Jake learns that to get the best of Ryan, he must learn mixed martial arts. He goes to the gym Max trains in and becomes a student of Jean Roqua, a former mixed martial arts champion who fled Brazil after a family rift. When Jean learns of Jake’s angst, he is reluctant to take him on as a student. However, after Ryan gets the best of Jake, the fury kicks in when Jake goes on a road rage against some guys and is kicked out of the gym.
When Jake finally confesses why he is filled with anger, Jean decides to give Jake a second chance. Jake begins to train hard and his tune changes from being an angry young man to one who has finally found peace. He learns Baja had dumped Ryan because of his showboat ways and the two decide to date. When Jake learns about an upcoming tournament called The Beatdown, Jake opts not to enter. However, when Ryan decides to put Max in the hospital to send a message to Jake, Jake must make a decision and to do that, he will need the support of Baja, his mother, and Jean to do what is right.
This film could be described as this millennium’s Karate Kid. That is, before the 2010 remake that starred Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan. The theme is the same, boy with issues gets bullied, trains in martial arts from wise man, boy finds peace, bully not having it and causes an incident where the boy must fight. However, the action here used is that of mixed martial arts. For those new to MMA, it is a hybrid style mainly used for sport. It is a combination of mainly Muay Thai, Brazilian Jujitsu, and sometimes other forms are used. This is popular with organizations like the Ultimate Fighting Championship and Strike Force.
To capitalize on the fad of MMA and bring the demographic of teens, Chris Hauty came up with the script for this film and under Jeff Wadlow’s direction, came up with something that is not too bad. Sean Faris is pretty good as Jake, the hero of the story who starts off as someone who has anger issues due to feeling the guilt that is buried within him. He is constantly reminded of the pain and anguish revolving around his father’s death. He feels responsible for his father’s death and it is not until midway through the film that the viewer understands why.
Twilight’s Cam Gigandet, who has had his share of likable roles (Who’s Your Caddy? is one) acts like a total showboat as bad boy Ryan. Ryan is a champion MMA fighter and he knows it. So does his friends. He wants everyone else to know he is the champ. Which is why he holds MMA fights in his own house parties. He wants everyone around him to know who is number one. However, we do get a glimpse of Ryan’s true side and it is not it is cracked up to be. One can only imagine where he got his showboating from, perhaps to get the attention of someone close to him.
Djimon Housou is great as the mixed martial arts coach who takes Jake under his way. At first, they have this relationship as only teacher-student, but it delves beyond that. Both have issues involving their fathers and eventually their angst brings them closer as best of friends with Hounsou’s Jean as the wise man who must offer Jake advice when he will need it most. To prepare for his role as Roqua, Housou, a trained martial artist in kung fu and karate, learned grappling from martial arts legend Erik Paulson.
To prepare for the fight sequences, Faris and Gigandet trained with the 87Eleven Stunt Team, the team responsible for training Korean pop star Rain for his action hit NINJA ASSASSIN. Faris and Gigandet look very well in their fight scenes. Under training from Danny Hernandez and Justin A. Williams and then the choreography by Damon Caro and Jonathan Eusebio (the latter appearing as a red-mohawked Beatdown fighter), the two duke it out well with some good use of double takes and long shots. There is not much of the extreme close ups and that’s a good thing because that could really destroy a fight. However, the climatic fight between Faris and Gigandet would earn them the Best Fight Award at the 2008 MTV Movie Awards.
Faris would work again with the 87Eleven Stunt Team for the really bad adaptation of the video game King of Fighters. Gigandet would win Best Fight again the following year with his climatic duel with Robert Pattinson as rival vampires in Twilight. Supporting actor Evan Peters and screenwriter Chris Hauty returned for Never Back Down 2: The Beatdown, which starred and marked the directorial debut of actor and martial artist Michael Jai White.
Never Back Down is worth seeing at least twice to really appreciate what the film offers as a whole. Some pretty good performances and some nice fight sequences for a Hollywood film make this definitely watchable.
WFG RATING: B
Summit Entertainment presents a Mandalay Entertainment production in association with BMP. Director: Jeff Wadlow. Producers: Craig Baumgarten and David Zelon. Writer: Chris Hauty.
Cinematography: Lukas Ettlin. Editing: Victor Dubois and Debra Weinfeld.
Cast: Sean Faris, Amber Heard, Cam Gigandet, Evan Peters, Leslie Hope, Djimon Hounsou, Wyatt Smith, Affion Crockett, Neil Brown Jr., Steven Crowley, Tilky Jones.