Never Back Down

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Attractive young actors and kick-ass fight scenes would seem to guarantee an audience of teens, and "Never Back Down" has been shrewdly engineered to tap into that hungry market. Although the movie set in the hot new arena of mixed martial arts is a bit short on star power, it's energetic and warm-hearted enough to become a word-of-mouth hit.

The story of a misfit maturing under the guidance of a wise martial arts instructor might stir memories (at least for older viewers) of a hit from 1984, "The Karate Kid." The new film's counterpart to Pat Morita's Mr. Miyagi is Djimon Hounsou's Jean Roqua, the taciturn guru who has a profound influence on the alienated young hero, Jake Tyler (Sean Faris).

Jake has not recovered from the accidental death of his father and has been prone to outbursts of anger and violence. Along with his mother and younger brother, Jake has recently moved from Iowa to Florida, and the pressures of being the new kid on the block only add to the resentment that he harbors.

When Jake is goaded into fighting the school bully, Ryan (Cam Gigandet), and is badly beaten, he decides to train with Jean to learn discipline as well as boxing skills. At first he just wants to become a more savage fighting machine, but he eventually learns life lessons that help to calm his demons.

While the outcome of Jake's quest is never really in doubt, the journey itself is always lively and compelling. Chris Hauty's script boasts a lot of sharp, funny dialogue as well as savvy touches depicting high school today. Jake's humiliations spread throughout school with alarming speed, thanks to ubiquitous camera phones and text messaging, which puts a 21st century spin on the gossip grapevine depicted in earlier teen movies. Director Jeff Wadlow supplies breakneck pacing that doesn't allow too much time to analyze the formulaic plot.


Casting also is spot-on. Faris conveys both the explosive anger and the underlying hurt of a troubled teen. Gigandet is marvelously menacing as his smooth, seductive, vicious nemesis. (Both actors display fearsomely ripped torsos.) Evan Peters brings welcome doses of wit to the role of the hero's nerdy sidekick; he also has some of the movie's best lines. On the other hand, Amber Heard as the love interest of both Jake and Ryan doesn't fare as well. She's undeniably beautiful, but her earnest line readings are arch and sometimes laughable, though it must be admitted that some of her dreary dialogue would probably defeat Meryl Streep.

Among the adult actors, Hounsou doesn't really have that much to do except to provide a dignified presence, which he accomplishes in spades. A special mention should be made of Leslie Hope, who gives an outstanding performance as Jake's impatient and critical but always caring mother.

Technical credits are first-rate. The film is expertly shot and designed, and the propulsive editing by Victor Dubois and Debra Weinfeld has a lot to do with the movie's success. At its core "Never Back Down" is just another teen exploitation movie, but middle-age viewers who wander into the theater might get the same giddy rush as the kids.

NEVER BACK DOWN
Summit Entertainment
Mandalay Independent Pictures, BMP Films
Credits:
Director: Jeff Wadlow
Screenwriter: Chris Hauty
Producers: Craig Baumgarten, David Zelon
Director of photography: Lukas Ettlin
Production designer: Ida Random
Music: Michael Wandmacher
Co-producer: Bill Bannerman
Costume designer: Judy Ruskin Howell
Editors: Victor Dubois, Debra Weinfeld
Cast:
Jake Tyler: Sean Faris
Jean Roqua: Djimon Hounsou
Baja Miller: Amber Heard
Ryan McCarthy: Cam Gigandet
Max Cooperman: Evan Peters
Margot Tyler: Leslie Hope
Charlie Tyler: Wyatt Smith
Running time -- 113 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13
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