You have to understand that I was prepared and in the mood for a Karate Kid rip-off. I don’t even consider the phrase “Karate Kid rip-off” remotely pejorative — it’s a value-neutral observation. I would have been delighted to see a decent spin on that classic film, or even a reasonable facsimile of it.
This is by way of explaining that I went into Never Back Down with what I think were the right expectations and the right mindset. I am not someone who dejectedly drags his ass to the likes of this film in between screenings of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and the latest from Jacques Rivette. I love a good coming-of-age martial-arts flick and was looking forward to this one. I own the damn Karate Kid DVD. I would have been proud to proclaim Never Back Down terrific entertainment. No high horses hereabouts.
As you’ve gathered, I don’t have the occasion here to lavish praise on a worthy successor to the Ralph Macchio/Pat Morita dream team. Never Back Down is woeful. But the best way to explain why that is so may be to look at some things The Karate Kid did right, and how this film failed to follow in its footsteps. I have no doubt that a genuine rip-off would have been better than what we have here.
The Karate Kid took us to a deeply implausible world of competing karate gangs, evil senseis and “sweep the leg, Johnny” that was nonetheless rooted in a familiar environment and in real teenage fears and insecurities. Little Ralph Macchio turned to Mr. Miyagi and martial arts because he was being bullied in school and needed a way to defend himself. The villains were ordinary punks with low self-esteem (albeit ones under the reign of a psychopathic karate instructor). It was a world we could conceptualize. Johnny’s life and his problems seemed familiar.
In what could, I guess, be read as “the times, they are a’changin’,” Never Back Down instead gives us jacked 25-year old “high-schoolers” driving Ferraris and taking out their aggression in no-holds-barred bare-knuckle brawls — just for fun. At one point, our hero Jake (Sean Faris) is taken to an absurdly decadent house party hosted by the villain (Cam Gigandet) — booze, drugs, hot tubs, barely-dressed women (excuse me — “high-school girls”), unpleasant rap music blaring across the lavish grounds. Just before the camera pans to reveal a crowd cheering as two guys beat the shit out of each other, a character describes their surroundings, without a trace of irony, as “American Pie bullshit” and contrasts it to the “real action” of the fight. It’s unclear whether he is referring to wholesome American tradition or the raunchy 1999 teen comedy. Either way, the notion of this fantasy world being a starting point is just weird. There’s nothing to identify with here. Who are these people?
There’s a stand-in for Mr. Miyagi: a fighting veteran and training gym owner played by — what the hell? — Djimon Hounsou. Mostly he is around to facilitate the training montages, of which there is a surfeit. His other role is to urge Jake to stay away from any actual violence — any fighting outside of the gym, he warns, and he will no longer be welcome. Indeed, much of the second half of Never Back Down is dedicated to this non-violence sentiment, which might lead one to ask how the film nonetheless gets us to the big tournament and climactic showdown. The answer is that it does so via generous heapings of intellectual dishonesty and outright incoherence. (The crucial exchange goes thus: “Walking away and giving up are not the same thing.” “Good, because I’m not doing either one.”)
The combat mode of choice here is what’s known as “mixed martial arts” or “MMA,” a style which — at least in this incarnation — has no regulations beyond “no crotch shots” and “no eye-gouging.” This leads to a bizarre dissonance, since its hard to reconcile straight-up brawling for sport with a high schooler’s coming-of-age (and also since the film is reduced to having the villain pointlessly gouge a poor guy’s eye to prove he’s the villain). The controlled final tournament in The Karate Kid, with its rules and its points, now seems quaint.
Never Back Down is good-looking, directed by Jeff Wadlow (whose Cry_Wolf was seemingly attractive and vapid, though considerably more entertaining) with a restless camera and a lot of flashy cutting. When it comes to the fights, though, Wadlow punks out, and many — particularly the later ones — are incomprehensible. The soundtrack is genuinely objectionable, with enough generic, droning metal and punk to make ears bleed.
There is precisely one worthwhile aspect of Never Back Down, and that is the relationship between Jake and his tennis prodigy little brother (Wyatt Smith). I held out hope that this would figure prominently in the third act — maybe Jake would finally go to his brother’s tennis match instead of the damn tournament? — but predictably had no such luck. The movie is too tin-eared and dumb for anything that subtle. Speaking as someone who approached Never Back Down with curiosity and hope rather than a sense of obligation, I implore you to stay away.