Thanks to TV and movies, Beach Resort paradises seem like a very weird place. People seem so consumed by the next big thing that what is popular in the community depends on the cultural zeitgeist. Never Back Down sought to modernize the underdog sports movie with the sport of the moment (mixed martial arts [MMA]) with the medium of the moment (viral videos). Never Back Down never quite achieves maximum liftoff due to plot contrivances and severe logic flaws, but it does provide a nice time capsule of what the social elite was like in 2008. And abs. Chiseled, terrifying abs.
The story stars in Iowa. Jake Tyler (Sean Faris) is one of the stars of his football team, but a brief fit of rage ends his football career. To support his aspiring tennis star brother (Wyatt Smith), Jake departs to sunny Orlando. His football brawl draws the eye of local MMA king of the hill Ryan (Cam Gigandet). Ryan uses his beautiful girlfriend Baja (Amber Heard) to lure Jake to a party so Ryan can beat him up. After the beat down, Jake uses new best friend Max Cooperman (Evan Peters) to set him up with Jean Roqua (Djimon Hounsou), the best MMA teacher out there. Through training, Jake learns how to channel and control his anger into the fight and out of his life so he never has to worry about backing down again.
Never Back Down deserves credit for being one of the earliest adopters of using viral video to spread someone's reputation. YouTube has become so prevalent in society today that we take for granted how new it actually is (it was created in 2005). Never Back Down has tremendous foresight on personal videos and self-promotion that has become commonplace today. Now, not every girl would be IMMEDIATELY turned on by a guy who beat up someone on a football field, but the insta-status change is well explored by Never Back Down.
If only logic would step in. With all the fighting Jake does, not once does anyone suggest he go to therapy, not even his mom (Leslie Hope). If I were in the Florida Police Department, I would be furious with Never Back Down. Several fights with evidence all over the internet attract zero investigations. At one point, one character gets viciously beaten, and the cops/parents/guardians are nowhere to be found. A simple police phone call would put several characters behind bars, thus semi-ruining the final fight between Ryan and Jake. What tips Never Back Down in the fundamentally flawed direction is the conflicting morality. Several of Jake's closes confidants urge him to not fight Ryan, but Jake insists that fighting him will stop Ryan from attacking people Jake loves. Never Back Down is obsessed with self-image; if Never Back Down boldly chose to humiliate Ryan and tarnish his reputation, the story would have taken a nice arc from Jake's violent teen to thoughtful young adult. Instead, after Ryan hurts several people and the fight is over, the beef is also over. Never Back Down implies that Jake and Ryan can be friends after they proved themselves in the ring, but why would you choose to respect a vicious sadist like Ryan? I doubt the macho men in Never Back Down really thought about it.
Acting is certainly not why you go to see Never Back Down. However, Djimon Hounsou captures intensity better than most actors in the business. He gives the mentor role a nice arc of sadness and understanding fueled by life experience. Also, Evan Peters is nicely eccentric and captures the teens of today very well, and Leslie Hope gets some good beats as Jake's mother. It's unfortunate that these three are supporting characters. Sean Faris plays a 23 year old 18 year old stiffly. He fights ok, but can't carry a movie, although the scenes with Wyatt Smith play like brother banter. Amber Heard is there to look crazy hot. Other than her body parts, she exhibits zero chemistry with anyone in this film. Cam Gigandet has model worthy stomach muscles and looks the right amount of creepy and entitled, but he brings nothing else to the table. Gigandet and Faris know how to fight, but bring nothing to the table when they fight.
Never Back Down is the movie equivalent of empty calories. In the moment, it is kinda fun, but it leaves you unsatisfied and is instantly forgotten after it is consumed. A great sports movie arouses prolonged euphoria in its audience; Never Back Down missteps enough to leave the audience indifferent or incredulous. If you want to see a GREAT mixed martial arts film, back down and see Warrior instead.