Five years ago, the FOX network titillated us with a story of a young boy from the wrong side of the tracks who got transplanted into the lap of luxury. The challenges of shedding his old school ways revolved around gorgeous girls and finding acceptance. The show was called The O.C., and it was a resurrection of the Beverly Hills 90210, but better. The O.C. ditched 90210's early wholesome direction and went straight for the scandal, the fights, and the sex. Think of Never Back Down as the first season of The O.C. on steroids.
Jake is a temperamental high school football star who has a knack for throwing devastating punches. When an opposing player says something demeaning about Jake's deceased father, he takes it upon himself to beat up the entire team on his own. The action is completely over the top, but we live with it. There are no immediate consequences, however, since Jake's little brother has been accepted to a tennis academy in Orlando, Florida. The two, along with their begrudged single mother, make the move from Iowa into a paradise that only Jake gets to taste.
In Orlando, everything is over the top. Kids live in mansions seemingly by themselves, the acceptable age for plastic surgery apparently doesn't exist, and oh - they have an underground fight club. We know that this is up Jake's alley, but then so does everyone at else at the new school since the football game brawl was captured on YouTube. Jake becomes an instant celebrity, and it's something that interests Ryan McDonald, the leader of the fight club. He's played by Cam Gigandet, who ironically played the villainous boyfriend who killed Marissa Cooper on The O.C. He's essentially the same character with a different name here, as he dupes Jake into attending a party worthy of MTV's Cribs. But the party is merely a setup to make an example out of the newcomer using Mixed Martial Arts (or MMA), a style of fighting Jake dismisses as unnecessary roughhousing. His ignorance toward the art gets him beaten rather handedly in front of his love interest, Baja (Amber Heard). To redeem himself, a classmate introduces Jake to Jean Roqua (Djimon Hounsou, the fabulous African from Blood Diamond), a legendary MMA trainer. Jake must learn to control his emotions while learning the disciplines that will eventually turn him into the Karate Kid of the new millennium. This is the setup, and all of The O.C. ingredients are here: a transplanted outsider, an underdog sidekick for comic relief, an incumbent badass who is too pretty to be true, and a bunch of overhead and wide-angle shots of the best real estate that Orlando apparently has to offer that you can't have.
While the premise is conventional enough, the film quickly becomes a science lab experiment of oil and water. The action is exciting, but the formula is too 101, and the screenplay, written by Chris Hauty, is amateur in its dialogue at best. Exchanges are basic, jokes often fall flat, and Jake's mother always says his name when she's addressing him like we need to be reminded who he is. The film's score overpowers the non-dialogue shots like workout music on an iPod, trying too hard to pump up the audience when, quite frankly, the fight sequences take care of that all by itself. Director Jeff Wadlow's marriage of cool cinematography during these sequences with a banging soundtrack left me to wonder why there was a score at all, and ultimately you wonder which elements of the film are better to lean on, the ones you love (the action) or the ones you hate (the drama). The film feels low budget until the interior house and fight scenes come trucking through, suggesting the director felt putting all of his money eggs in that basket was a necessary risk. The result ends up being some good money blown. When Jake's friend informs him that the massive mansion living room they're sitting in is simply a guest house, we get it, but only in the sense that we had already got from the first time we saw the kids in Orlando.
But all is not wasted. Jake's little brother, played by Wyatt Smith, delivers a level of much needed warmth to an otherwise cold slate of characters. And Hounsou as Roqua is an actor who is steadily showing that he can turn just about anything into gold. When Roqua trains Jake, there's much more than just an MMA lesson going on here; there's a lesson on how to save a film when most of its foundations ultimately fail. Aside from the action, which I suppose is the real point of this film, he damn near saves this one.
Rated PG-13, Running time 106 minutes
Starring: Djimon Hounsou, Sean Faris, Cam Gigadent
Written by Chris Hauty
Directed by Jeff Wadlow
Distributed by Summit Entertainment
Review by Simbarashe
Starpulse contributing writer