Never Back Down is, through and through, a guilty pleasure. It’s like a car accident — you want to look away, but something keeps your eyes securely fixed on the wreckage.
The film is basically a quasi-remake of the The Karate Kid, which featured Daniel (Ralph Macchio) as the pupil and his teacher Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) as the eternal dispenser of all things related to waxing on and off. In that film, Daniel is the new kid in town that is picked up on by bullies trained in Kobra-Kai Karate, a system that demands its students not be merciful. Mr. Miyagi is the humble superintendent in his apartment complex that offers to teach Daniel his version of Karate as a way to acquire self-defense and “balance.” In the end, Daniel fends off the Kobra-Kai bullies at a karate tournament, and winning a championship in the process. This victory grants him the “balance” in his life and, of course, he gets the girl Ally (played by a very young Elisabeth Shue).
Plot wise, Never Back Down is an almost 100 percent rehash of The Karate Kid. New kid comes into town; new kid gets charmed by a hot girl; new kids gets humiliated by bully; new kid learns martial arts from teacher and learns to “never back down;” new kid beats bully; credits.
The only exception is that The Karate Kid still retained a unique aura about it while Never Back Down has been infused with all the components of a teenage show on the CW channel. All the cinematic archetypes from The O.C. are there: everyone is hot, everybody lives in big houses and all the dialogue sucks. (Note: The only time I ever glanced at The O.C. was when girls on fifth floor Donlon would watch it on Thursday while I worked on Physics homework, so I might make up stuff involving the show if it fits in the review. If you find this infuriating … I don’t know, deal with it or something.)
The characters are similarly delineated in a very predictable manner: The “villain” is Ryan McCarthy, the requisite popular high school kid that satisfies the role of “Teenage Alpha Male Douche” (The “Luke” character from The O.C.) and bullies the protagonist Jake Tyler (Sean Faris) with his fighting prowess. All of McCarthy’s mannerisms, and the dimensions of his character, are consistent with the required characteristics stipulated in Treatise on Stereotypical Depiction of Teenagers in Cinema. This treatise has been used several times in cinema, such as in constructing the characters on Dawson’s Creek and the requisite horny teenage victims in all the Friday the 13th horror movies.
Tyler is the Daniel character from The Karate Kid — the new kid that gets picked on by bullies. He radiates a tough and angry countenance but secretly hides a heart of gold. In the end he learns to “never back down” and gets back his self-respect and of course, the girl — Baja Miller (Amber Heard). Baja, consistent with the requirements of teenage drama, is really hot. Tyler also has the requisite uber-annoying best friend/side kick, Max Cooperman (Evan Peters) who accompanies him wherever he goes.
And who is Mr. Miyagi? That would be Jean Roqua (Djimon Hounsou), who is probably the most developed character in the whole film — the man comes across strong because Hounsou is a really good actor, not because of the script.
In the acting department (besides Hounsou), Sean Faris does a pretty good job playing Jake Tyler given what he has on script to work with. The scenes he has with Hounsou constitute the film’s only strength.
I’ve basically been badmoouthing this movie nonstop thus far. However, I mentioned that movies like these are a guilty pleasure — and what do I mean? I mean “bad” teenage martial art movies (here the martial art on display is Mixed Martial Arts, popularized by the UFC sport programming on Spike TV). The movies are uber-predictable from scene number one, and there is really no “artistic” merit to them, but I secretly loved watching this film while fully acknowledging all its flaws. Thus, Never Back Down offers nothing new and is many levels below films like No Country for Old Men in cinematic merit, but at the same time it is entertaining for what it is.