Is "Never Back Down" so bad it's good, or just plain bad? Really, it's a little bit of both. A teen-set "Fight Club
" with heavy doses of "The Karate Kid," the film is so sincere and yet so mired in over-the-top theatrics and prehistoric-era clichés that the result is funnier than most intentional comedies released these days. Jeff Wadlow (2005's "Cry_Wolf
") directs with glossy, music video-style finesse, while Chris Haughty scripts with "Afterschool Specials" on the brain. Subtlety is clearly a word neither of them have an understanding of.
Jake Tyler (Sean Faris) is a hotheaded teen who reluctantly moves with mother Margot (Leslie Hope) and younger tennis-playing brother Charlie (Wyatt Smith) from their home in Iowa to sunny Orlando, Florida. Having never gotten over the drunk driving crash that killed his father, Jake is filled with pent-up emotions and desperately needs an outlet to release them in. When he stumbles into a circle of classmates who physically fight each other for fun and dominance over their peers, he ends up gets his butt whooped by priggish BMOC Ryan McCarthy (Cam Gigandet). Seeking to strengthen himself up and become a better fighter, Jake enlists the help of mixed martial arts coach Jean Roqua (Djimon Hounsou). Despite Jean's demands that the skills he teaches are for self-fulfillment and not to be used outside of the gym, Jake believes he has no choice but to prove himself by going up against Ryan in an underground "Beatdown" competition.
If taken at face value, "Never Back Down" would appear to be an exposé about Orlando teens' favorite pastime: beating the crap out of each other for the heck of it. Furthermore, most of the under-18s populating the film appear to be in their twenties, the lot of them with flawless bodies and beautiful, model-ready faces (when, that is, they aren't all bruised up). As protagonist Jake, Sean Faris (2005's "Yours, Mine and Ours
") pouts and mumbles his way through a role that is far from likable; it's not necessarily that he's a bad guy, but he is stubborn and immature, treating every problem he goes up against as if it's the end of the world.
Having sat through the entire picture, it is still unclear why Jake is so adamant about fighting Ryan when any person with half a brain would realize he's not even worth his time. Instead of calling the cops on him when he beats to a pulp good pal Max Cooperman (Evan Peters), Jake spits out some nonsense about fighting Ryan so he no longer has to. In actuality, his problems all stem from his father's death, a traumatic experience for him that he can't go five minutes without bringing up. During a heated shouting match between Jake and widowed mom Margot, she exclaims, "You're not the only one who wants to break things! I wanna break things!" and smashes a glass against the dining room wall. This scene, like the whole movie, takes itself so seriously, and yet the only responses it can muster from viewers are bursts of laughter and plenty of eye rolls. Meanwhile, though a one-dimensional bad guy, Ryan gets a single out-of-place scene where he is taunted by his belligerent, drunken father, as if that explains away his reasons for being a total A-hole. Cam Gigandet (TV's "The OC") plays Ryan without a speck of humanity; he might as well wear horns on his head.
Every boneheaded, overheated teen melodrama requires a love interest, and "Never Back Down" fulfills this requirement in the form of Baja Miller (Amber Heard), the most popular girl in schooland Ryan's girl, natch. She is beautiful, envied, and yet has her own set of problems, you see, like not being able to stand up for herself at the risk of becoming an outcast. She also has her eyes set on Jake. Ah, to be sixteen and stupid in the land of Hollywood filmmaking. Rising "It" girl Amber Heard (2006's "Alpha Dog
") is stunning to look at and works the camera as if it were silly putty in the palm of her hand. In a movie with a brain and dialogue that didn't sound like one step up from the quality of porn, Heard could potentially be quite good. As directed by Jeff Wadlow, she is forced into a series of awkward poses and sultry looks, ogled and exploited to the point of distraction.
"Never Back Down" is mindblowingly stupid. The plot is predictable, of course, but also heavy-handed and over-the-top. Conflicts are trite, juvenile and unrelatable. Suffice it to say, authenticity isn't its strong suit. In its grand idiocy, however, is almost a quaint charm. The movie is naive in the extreme, and would be right at home as a 1950s B-movie, the characters' troubles able to be worked out by nothing more than a brawl and then a respectful nod between rivals. "Never Back Down" is clueless about teenagersat least the kinds of teenagers I'd want to have any sort of correspondence withand yet, it is the very audience that will likely flock to the picture and enjoy it for its fight choreography, its rippled abs on display and a fun, addictive soundtrack that is far and away the best thing about the film. Still, would even a sliver of intelligence have been too much to ask for? As is, the cheesy, soapy, altogether daft proceedings signal a spoof movie that doesn't even realize it's a laughing stock.