U.S. Release Date: March 14, 2008
Distributor: Summit Entertainment
Director: Jeff Wadlow
Producer: David Zelon
Composer: Michael Wandmacher
Cast: Sean Faris, Amber Heard, Cam Gigandet, Djimon Hounsou
Running Time: 1 hour and 50 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (mature thematic material involving intense sequences of fighting/violence, some sexuality, partying and language - all involving teens)

Outsider Fighter Formula Works
by Scott Holleran

Safe and formulaic, Never Back Down lives up to its title. This straightforward story of a Midwestern kid in transition is a tight action picture with broad characters. Credit goes to Chris Hauty's script.

A family of three forms the plot nucleus. Widowed, working mother (Leslie Hope) struggles to provide guidance to her two sons, bright, younger son Charlie and strong, silent Jake, who was with his dad during the car crash that took his life. Football player Jake (Sean Faris) seems angry all the time; the proverbial jock with a chip on his shoulder. His buttons are easily pushed. When they are, he pops like a bottle rocket.

When the trio relocates to central Florida on Charlie's tennis scholarship, Jake's hotheaded past catches up with him in the form of a video aired on the Internet. With a tall, built frame, Jake's a walking dare to the spoiled Floridian suburban subculture that glorifies fighting. Upon viewing Jake's fists in action, one student tells the new kid: "you can bang, dude." True to life, teachers are passive or ignorant of the practices, dominated by an apparently popular approach to street fighting known as mixed martial arts (originated by South American Portuguese in the Twenties).

Set to rock songs that play too loud and nearly all sound like The Cure, Never Back Down gears up, establishing clearly drawn characters with more dimension than one might expect in a movie that could have been aimed at functionally illiterate meatheads that salivate at the sight of a fistfight.

Though those audiences will eat it up anyway, Never Back Down, which alludes to Greek mythology, neither sanctions brainless brutality nor sanctimonious pacifism. Never Back Down deals in simple, character-driven sub-stories that merge into a clichéd but enjoyable minor spectacle. Fight scenes take place in grainy, fast cuts, of course.

Jake's a good person, trying not to run afoul of his surviving parent and supporting his kid brother. But he's drawn into a bloody battle with a stoic, blond nemesis (Cam Gigandet) when he meets a hottie (Amber Heard) who, like many kids today, hides the fact that she's intelligent. From parent, peers and others, Jake's sent signals that are as mixed as this brand of almost-anything-goes martial arts. He learns to trust his judgment about whether to fight or not and when.

Teased as an outsider, taunted to "get up, farmer," and told he has to fight to prove himself in this superficial, anti-intellectual high school, Jake takes charge, chooses to discriminate and sets new terms in what someone calls gladiator heaven. He buddies up with Max (Evan Peters) a geek who worships fighting to a fault. He rejects the two-timing girl and, through his apprenticeship to a godlike master (Djimon Hounsou), he takes personal responsibility.

Teacher's intense physical training—using kicks, crunches, and cinder blocks—offers Jake an opportunity to achieve discipline and exercise control. He finds the right girl, stops fighting based on outbursts and learns to appreciate poker as a game of thought. The abdominally perfect nemesis has other ideas.

A final fight climax allows Jake to repudiate pacifism, teaching Teach a thing or two, and, while it takes entirely too long and grants the blond nemesis respect that his character does not earn, Jake, Charlie and their mom come off a happy family, with a few additions. Hounsou is convincing as ever in a persistently satisfying movie about checking one's emotions and knowing when not to tap out.

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