Some people just don’t get it. Look at those doofs called “critics” at Rotten Tomatoes who are slagging one of the better popcorn pictures of the past few years.
I fortunately do get it. And it’s good for you that I know what I’m talking about. That I know what I know. That I appreciate a good re-hash as long as it ups the ante on the exploitation it’s exploiting. And NEVER BACK DOWN? Well, it does just that.
Without me, you’d probably just dismiss this well-handled B-movie until it showed up on Spike TV at three in the morning.
Now to be quite honest, it’s not even a re-hash of THE KARATE KID (1984). It shares the same lineage, but really it’s a re-hash of the vastly underrated SHOWDOWN (1993), the Billy Blanks vehicle that starred him as a school janitor teaching a nebbish new student martial arts so he can beat up the kid who’s the school’s martial arts master and get his now ex-girlfriend (an early role for Ben Stiller’s wife, Christine Taylor).
Of course, SHOWDOWN was a direct re-hash of KARATE KID, but the camp humor that abounded throughout made it stand out from the KARATE KID re-hash pack and ultimately surpass the vastly overrated KARATE KID itself. It also helps if you have the late Brion James as an irreverent school principal in your cast. If you haven’t seen SHOWDOWN, get thee to Ebay.
In NEVER BACK DOWN, Jake Taylor (Sean Faris, “One Tree Hill”) is a football player from Iowa with natural American Streetfighting ability who moves to Orlando, FL after the drunk driving death of his father and so his tennis-prodigy little brother can attend some tennis academy. Before you think we may get some tennis circuit hi-jinks ala THE BREAK (1995), the Vincent Van Patten cult classic that was THE KARATE KID of tennis, let it be known that the kid thinks his brother’s fighting is way cooler than tennis, which worries Jake’s bitchy mom (Leslie Hope, “RoboCop: Prime Directives”) because she blames Jake for the father’s death and doesn’t really like him or his fighting. Jake was with his dad the night he died and instead of taking the keys from him, he let Pops drive. Of course, if he didn’t let his dad kill himself, then he’d have no fuel to fight and NEVER BACK DOWN would be without its driving catalyst.
Now the second driving catalyst is high school rich boy/master of mixed martial arts is Ryan McCarthy (Cam Gigandet, WHO”S YOUR CADDY?) who beats Jake’s ass in a fight at a party. McCarthy’s girl, Baja (Amber Heard, ALPHA DOG), sets Jake up by inviting him to his own ass-kicking, but really, she just wants to Greco-Roman wrestle with the new guy. Jake’s new buddy, Max (Evan Peters, “Invasion”), convinces Jake that his natural American Streetfighting ability would gel well with mixed martial arts and therefore he takes up the ass-kicking business by training with Senegal-by-way-of-Brazil Jean Roqua (Djimon Hounsou, DEEP RISING), a mixed martial arts trainer whose got some of his own demons to fight and therefore ended up near Disney World.
At the end of NEVER BACK DOWN, there’s a big tournament and a happy ending. Which I knew was going to happen. You know it’s going to happen. It’s supposed to happen. In this post-post-irony period, if he didn’t win, it would look cliché.
What works best about NEVER BACK DOWN is that it succeeds greatly in giving the intended action audience what it wants. Many films nowadays (let’s say for example, the GONE IN 60 SECONDS remake) promise a decent enough trailer and the end result when all put together is stupendously boring and contemptuous of its demographic. Not the case here.
Every cliché is lovingly rendered for the 21st Century, every punch and crunch professionally sound designed for maximum cringe-inducing effect and every ass-kicking expertly staged by fight choreographers Damon Caro (DAWN OF THE DEAD remake) and Jonathan Eusebio (MAX HAVOC:CURSE OF THE DRAGON). Mucho kudos to director Jeff Wadlow (CRY WOLF) who took this son-of-a-bitch seriously; his attention to detail shows in the final product. Hell, he even rips off the x-ray bit from Chiba’s original STREETFIGHTER (1975) so you know he’s done his genre homework.
Let’s also give it up to writer Chris Hauty, whose only other IMDB credit was writing Disney’s HOMEWARD BOUND II. Was it desperation that led him to pitch KARATE KID meets UFC in Walt’s backyard? Whatever it was, bully for him, putting the pieces together where they need be (although, Chris, you know this shit is SHOWDOWN. You can’t fool me.)
One of the most important technical parts of NEVER BACK DOWN is that logic is never even hinted at. Genre movies lately try to inject logic in what is essentially an illogical universe, i.e. the movies.
At this new school in Orlando, EVERYBODY is all about mixed martial arts, kind of like Vince Lombardi High, where EVERYBODY was all about the Ramones, a world that only exists in the movies, which is what I want when I go to the movies.
There’s no cops, no punishment for those involved in illegal fighting or uploading teen fighting videos on the Internet and no monitoring of any of the kid’s activities in any way shape or form. These people don’t really exist so their world doesn’t exist thus making it an extremely fragile netherworld whose only enemy is any semblance of logic, which at that point would disrupt its universe like bad kryptonite and render NEVER BACK DOWN unforgivably pointless.
Needless to say, a cinematic experience like this is extremely rare and deserves your attention.
But NEVER BACK DOWN really deserves you attention because it’s never boring, consistently brutal and heart-warmingly familiar throughout its whole 110 minute running time. Like RAMBO, it promises what’s in the trailer. Unlike RAMBO, it doesn’t give you more. But for a SHOWDOWN rip-off, you don’t expect it to.
STREETFIGHTER x-ray pic co-opted from MOVIE FEAST.
ROCK 'N ROLL HIGH SCHOOL pic punked from Theme Park Radio Blog.