By a few notable metrics, “Never Back Down” is one of the more successful mixed martial arts (MMA) media franchises out there. Not only did the original movie rake in twice its budget in the worldwide box office, but it also produced two Michael Jai White-led sequels that featured noteworthy MMA figures like Todd Duffee, Lyoto Machida and Josh Barnett.
Several of its performers went on to become Hollywood fixtures, including Amber Heard (“Pineapple Express,” “Zombieland,” “Aquaman”), Evan Peters (“American Horror Story,” “X-Men”), and “Gladiator” veteran Djimon Hounsou (“Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Shazam”). The climactic fight scene even won an MTV movie award, defeating one of “The Bourne Ultimatum’s” many kickass tussles.
So how does it hold up after 12 years? Badly, as it turns out.
Iowa high school football player Jake Tyler (Sean Faris) starts an on-field brawl by decking the opposing player who taunted him over the death of his father. The game proves to be his last, as he moves to Orlando alongside his mother and tennis-prodigy brother.
MMA is to Jake’s new school as college football is to any SEC university, only moreso somehow. Local bro Max (Peters) tries to rope Jake into the sport after the footage of Jake’s brawl goes viral, only to be turned down. Jake does, however, willingly go to a party at BMOC Ryan McCarthy’s (Cam Gigandet) extremely large house.
As it turns out, half the partygoers are outside doing MMA on each other. Jake is press-ganged into a fight with Ryan through the interference of obvious future love interest Baja Miller (Heard) and, though he initially refuses, Ryan presses the “dead dad” button to goad him into what becomes a one-sided beating.
Days later, Max convinces Jake to train with MMA coach Jean Roqua (Hounsou) to ultimately avenge himself at “The Beatdown”, an underground tournament that McCarthy has won twice. You can probably guess the general progression from there.
The good: the many teenage fistfights do feature genuine MMA moves, albeit with a greater preference for the eye-catching than the functional. Lots of low-percentage entries into submissions, plenty of Superman punches, spinning sh*t, etcetera. It’s also the first martial arts movie I’ve ever seen really acknowledge how debilitating leg kicks can be; as someone who does so love watching thighs get mulched, that gets it a couple points in my book.
Though the overall fight choreography isn’t anything special, I will give credit where it’s due.
Now, the bad, meaning pretty much everything else. Let’s start with the soundtrack, which is practically song-for-song what I’d use were I to make a movie parodying the Tapout “FACE THE PAIN” culture. I recognize that 2008 was a different time, but I don’t think there’s a point in history where two shirtless high schoolers pummeling each other to My Chemical Romance’s “Teenagers” could be presented with a straight face. It’s like if someone released a new NFL Street game with even less self-awareness, and every potential stirring of emotional engagement is swiftly drowned by a seemingly non-stop onslaught of nu-metal.
The characters don’t fare much better; Jake is presented as a complex figure but basically amounts to a muscled-up mannequin with a Marty McFly “chicken” reaction to bringing up his dad. Max and Baja slot into the “best friend” and “girlfriend” roles without actually doing anything to get there. Max goes from being a weirdo in the cafeteria trying to goad Jake into bad decisions into a mutual ride-or-die BFF seemingly instantly, and Jake’s transition from rightfully hating Baja for setting him up for the aforementioned ass-kicking to sucking face with her is less organic than the keyboard I’m writing this on.
Ryan is an even worse case, basically acting like a rogue scientist’s attempt to create the platonic ideal of douche. He’s a goatee away from being a mirror universe version of Sage Northcutt, and at no point does he ever show anything even resembling a personality beyond instinctively performing the most unlikable action at any given point in time. I get it, writing villains is hard. The Marvel movies didn’t really figure it out until ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming.” At least a modicum of effort would be appreciated, though.
God bless Hounsou, who puts in far more effort than this movie deserves to make Jean Roqua a genuinely compelling character despite the abysmal writing.
Where the movie tanks its way into “so bad it’s almost good” territory is in the plot. Just in case any of you are worried about spoiling a 12-year-old movie I’ve explicitly told you is terrible, here’s a warning.
A movie doesn’t necessarily need to be wholly original to be entertaining; ‘Warrior’ is composed largely of cliches, but they’re executed well enough that the end result remains compelling. ‘Never Back Down’ is just ‘Karate Kid but bad.’ I could probably squeeze another thousand words out of a more detailed explanation on why the storyline is a catastrophic failure, but let’s just focus on the dumbest part.
When Jake matures as a person to the point where he recognizes that the tournament is pointless and withdraws, Ryan beats Max to near-death and dumps him outside of Jake’s house. There is literally nothing stopping Jake from going to the police after taking Max to the hospital; Roqua saw Max get into Ryan’s car, there are witnesses who can attest to Ryan being a violence-obsessed dick, and Max will be able to testify after treatment. There is no reason for Jake to participate in the tournament, and yet he gives a huge dramatic speech to Roqua that falls apart under the slightest scrutiny and then does so.
“Why didn’t they just call the police” may be lazy criticism, but come on. I feel like this movie can be best summed up by the referee’s instructions in the first tournament fight, wherein after informing the participants that it will be a “no holds barred” match, he lists which moves are barred.
If you’ve got somewhere to stream it, like HBO Go, grab some drinks and watch it over a video call with friends. It’s the kind of schlock best enjoyed as a group.