Though it telegraphs its punches too obviously, the pugilism-and-perspiration epic “Never Back Down” has all the ingredients to be a knockout at the B.O. and in the DVD market. Popularity of the Ultimate Fighting Championship will undoubtedly help, as will the meller’s glorification of violence and rationalization of revenge. Best part, though, is the cast: Everyone’s a model, everyone beats each other half to death, and no one looks as if they’ve ever suffered so much as a coldsore.
Sean Faris, who more than resembles a young Tom Cruise (and no doubt has stable of people promoting that very idea), is Jake Tyler, an angry young man from Iowa who winds up in Orlando, Fla., with his mom (Leslie Hope) and younger brother (Wyatt Smith). He immediately gets drafted into the local fight-club scene via a vicious beating from local bully Ryan McCarthy (Cam Gigandet).
As anyone who has ever seen a boxing movie, any kind of sports movie or even a Western can tell you, the entire narrative will be focused on how, when and why Jake beats the living daylights out of Ryan. This isn’t giving anything away, any more than it’d be giving away the plot of summer to say that birds fly south for the winter. The tantalizing question is how the pic will explain all the violence away. “Never Back Down” tries, but not very hard.
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Helmer Jeff Wadlow showed promise with “Cry Wolf” (2005), but sometimes seems to think he’s directing a commercial for beer, cars and/or feminine hygiene products. So much narrative detail takes place during musical montages that there’s barely time to get the requisite mean-spirited violence into the picture. But Wadlow manages.
Faris is fine, but pic has a far more charismatic star in Gigandet, who is gleefully, hatefully sadistic and evil as Jake’s more skilled antagonist. Djimon Hounsou, never seen enough, is terrific doing the Pat Morita thing as Jean Roqua, who runs the gym where Jake will learn not just mixed-martial-arts techniques, but life-lessons too, natch.
Amber Heard, on the other hand, has to be seen to be believed. If there were an award for best coyly sexual biting of lower lip by an actress in a leading role, she would win it hands down. Heard plays Baja (yes!), the other side of the Jake-Ryan triangle, and isn’t done any favors by all the preposterous slow-mo entrances and babe-alicious posturing. There’s more than enough random flesh parading through “Never Back Down” that an actual performance by Heard (soon to be seen, and far more appreciated, in “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane”) would have been welcome.”Never Back Down” exists in a world of beautiful people, beautiful homes and much unoccupied money, where the rules of physics and physiology are on a serious vacation — the human body can’t do or withstand the things this movie claims it can, and one can only hope that pic’s probable success doesn’t trigger a dramatic rise in schoolyard body-slams, arm locks and chokeholds.
Production values are first-rate.