When a sport reaches a certain level of popularity, it's natural for Hollywood to latch on and make a film about it. Hockey had The Mighty Ducks, stock car racing had Days of Thunder and competitive cheerleading had Bring It On. Now, with mixed martial arts purportedly the fastest-growing sport on the continent, Never Back Down has kicked down the doors of local multiplexes. Unfortunately, it lacks the prestige of its spiritual predecessors.
Immediately, the audience is introduced to Iowa teen Jake Tyler. Plagued by guilt over his father's death and subsequently unable to control his anger, Tyler's been tossed out of numerous schools. When his tennis prodigy brother gets into an exclusive school in Florida, the Tyler family is on the move. Tyler's rage issues come in handy when he discovers the underground fighting ring being run by his new classmate, Ryan McCarthy. Following a humiliating beatdown, Tyler is taken under the wing of a local trainer Jean Roqua (Djimon Hounsou) and aims to get even with McCarthy.
The presentation of the sport of mixed martial arts in Never Back Down is fairly paradoxical. The men who train in Roqua's gym are all shown as well-trained and dedicated, but it's never really shown what they're training for. In fact, every bit of fighting in the film takes place on patios, in clubs or in parking lots. The audience is led to believe that, while hockey players aspire towards the Olympics or the NHL, mixed martial artists train simply to be proficient in committing felonious assault outside of any sanctioning body. Stranger still, none of the guys in any of the fights are making any money from them, so the vast majority of men in Never Back Down are simply headcases who like to hurt people.
On the other hand, the fights themselves are the best parts of the film. The direction and writing make it so that the audience can't wait to see people get punched in the face. Thankfully, the fights kick in early and often. Director Jeff Wadlow and writer Chris Hauty seem to be fairly clueless about the sport itself, but they know how to pace the film and the final fight is an effective centrepiece. A romantic subplot involving Tyler and McCarthy's ex-girlfriend Baja (Amber Heard) is also included, but fills the screen with awkward situations and tremendously laughable dialogue.
Never Back Down is brought to life by a strange mix of youngsters that appeared on The O.C. and Smallville, along with two-time Academy Award nominee Djimon Hounsou. Everyone plays their roles well enough, given the writing, but the entire film ends up feeling like the demented lovechild of The O.C. and the UFC. Despite featuring some exciting fight sequences and stylish presentation, it's like a movie about aspiring basketball players ending with their triumph being playing in someone's driveway.
Never Back Down is in theatres Fri., Mar. 14.