Never Back Down Reviews
When we meet Jake Tyler, he's all rage issues and anger with talk about his old man being a white hot trigger that sets him off. With quick flashbacks and temper flare-ups with shirts, it feels like his dad could be the villain, but we quickly realize that all that rage is a volcano of guilt for backing down when it came to something that mattered, for not putting up a fight when he should have. It eats at him with everything he does: he doesn't drive because he didn't drive then, he fights because he couldn't fight then, he's a complete mess.
He seems fairly loose and willing to give things a try in the move, more than most people would be on their first day I'd think. When he learns that the past has followed him to his new location and he becomes betrayed and trapped into a fight because of past reputation, I feel for him. There are a ton of cameras and online videos in this movie, but it's not about the glory of the internet. It's about the horrors how everything you do can haunt you, like how his entire school knew about his dead father by the middle of the week and used it to bully him into a beatdown. It's also about taking control of yourself so you won't be ashamed of what you do in the future.
I really like the use of Hounsou's school as an outlet. I had the mother's same reaction when he continued on getting roped in by Max to live vicariously through him and his fighting prowess. But it wasn't about fighting. It was about dealing with his inner fury, learning to control and manage it so it would no longer control him. It was about healing, and his coach knew it, saw it, and managed it in a safe environment with a steady but forceful hand.
There's also no one flat in this movie. Every named character has a motivation, reason, and thing they hate about themselves or their situation that they are dealing with. Max pushes Jake into fighting because that's all he has with his family not around, and seeing someone so good at something he wants to do confuses him. Baha hates the manipulation and the games McDonald creates. McDonald has a home life with an insecure father who makes his kid feel weak to feel strong himself. Jake's mother is dealing with grief and loss and anger of her own, but she can't let it out because she has two kids depending on her, one of whom is going to a very prestigious school and she's at work often judged by the uniform she wears and the amount she's not at home. There's great dynamics between the principal cast.
One of my favorite things about the movie was the end. Yes, even though the movie hit all the points of your standard 'underdog vs bully with big tournament showdown' movie points, I can't recall any movie where the main character walks away completely from the tournament. The fact that he wasn't there for the championship, he was just there so no one else in his life would get hurt by stopping the guy doing it, and the way he left it there... the fight after really doesn't matter except for McDonald's character arc. Jake Tyler's already finished his and overcome his demons.
I believe that despite a plot we've seen hundreds of times and these rich white suburbanites so bored that they all fight club, the characters were really rich for a film of its type, the fight scenes themselves were really crisp and well-executed, the points it was trying to make were sound and well-founded by the actions and histories of the characters themselves, and Jake Tyler was an infinitely better protagonist than Daniel LaRusso.
I expected Never Back Down to be packed with action movie cliches, but I didn't know that it was a high school film. But when it made this clear, I knew that there was going to be more movie tropes packed into Never Back Down than I could have ever imagined. That sentiment ended up true, because Never Back Down hits viewers over the head with this notion long before the film becomes an action movie. The earliest example of this comes from when Jake Tyler is packing to move to a new city and fills a box with his football gear before labelling the box "Useless Junk" which leaves absolutely nothing to the implications. The cliche is so explicit that it is almost laughable, and considering that Never Back Down proves to repeat that level of conventional plot points every minute of the rest of the film there is a suggestion that the film could succeed as an unintentional comedy.
The plot of the film is absolutely ridiculous, trying to bring the concept of a MMA fighting ring to a high school setting. It clearly wants to be a modern day version of The Karate Kid but with an updated style of violence more fit for the crowd of the MTV generation. That style is uninspired and shallow without even a hint of style to it, pinning weak filmmaking against an even weaker narrative. As a martial arts film, Never Back Down actively works against everything that martial arts is supposed to be for. The protagonist uses violence against other people to get his aggression out or whenever he wants to show himself up, even though he is told never to fight outside the gym by his trainer Jean Roqua. Roqua is the one competent character in the story, even though he is heavily an archetype in the same sense that everything else in the film is. Yet of course, all the messages he passes on to Jake Tyler prove to be wasted cliches burdened even more by the fact that they do not go to heart. You can't expect them to go to heart partially because there is no underlying messages in the film, but also because it doesn't have a heart. To make matters worse, the protagonist is such an agressive and unlikable one that I rarely found myself rooting for him. I wanted a good fight, but I didn't care who won because the story did not leave me supporting him. When an action movie has you not caring about the protagonist, you know its failing at its job. Yet Never Back Down falters even more when it comes to actively delivering the action.
One thing I hate in action films is when the action is buried beneath shaky cinematography and excessively quick editing. Although there are countles worse examplesl than Never Back Down, Jeff Wadlow still directs the film to succumb to the same flimsy film style. This technique is normally added to limit the violence in the film and limit the blood and gore, yet the DVD release of the film delivered promises of more of this than the theatrical version which was not lived up to. Although the fight choreography is decent, the way that Jeff Wadlow goes about capturing it all effectively ensures that the action in Never Back Down is completely butchered and dashes past the eye of the viewer which frustrates me more than all the incompetent plot devices ever could. Never Back Down is more of an insult to fans of action cinema than it is to martial artists.
And of course, the cast in the film are pathetic.
Sean Faris is a frustratingly generic protagonist. Anchored in the roots of the entire generic film around him, Sean Faris is condemmned to portraying a character who is such a pathetic jock and nothing else. Nothing about the character is either original or compelling, and that includes the performance of Sean Faris. There is mild enjoyment to be had out of seeing his fighting abilities, but since they are buried beneath shoddy filmmaking it is all the more easy to see his acting as the main factor. He has no charisma and none of the inspiration that the film pretends to have, ending up an ultimately forgettable actor and nothing more.
Though Academy Award nominee Djimon Hounsou shows up in Never Back Down and his physical capabilities are admirable, he is stuck with an exceedingly weak and uninspired character. Though he is supposed to be the one to inspire the protagonist, Jean Roqua is a character without an interesting subplot. He is not a strong coach, and even though he clearly has the ability to pack a punch with his fighting skills, the same cannot be said about his performance. I don't blame him because I know he is talented, I just know that the weight of poor direction and a generic script is too much for him to hold up by himself.
Evan Peters is just stupid. Though Evan Peters is supposed to provide the comic relief to the story in Never Back Down, he is just plain annoying from the first second on screen and every one after that. There is no subtlety in the character as he just refuses to shut up, even though his gimmick is frustating from the first second. When he gets beaten up as part of the narrative drive I couldn't have cared less, and the idiodic nature of the character just left me thinking that he was stupid enough to drag himself into a trap and deserved the consequences. Evan Peters is the least compelling of all in Never Back Down.
Lastly, Cam Gigandet offers nothing as the film's primary antagonist. Although he looks mildly like Paul Walker and shows off some decent fight moves, he has little in the way of gimmicks. Cam Gigandet plays the antagonist of Never Back Down with no involvement in the character and a truly lifeless nature. He can get away with claiming that the persona he puts on is merely a facade for an underlying antagonistic nature, but I would just call it a lazy performance more than anything. Cam Gigandet plays such a blank and spiritless antagonist into Never Back Down, but at least he doesn't come off as being pretentiously melodramatic like everyone else.
So Never Back Down buries its potential appeal for competent viewers beneath every single action movie cliche and high school movie trope in the book before pushing away action movie fans with poorly crafted fight scenes and uninspired characters.
You can pass.